Archive

Archive for August, 2011

The riots: my tuppenceworth

August 21, 2011 2 comments

I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many people get so passionate about politics, parenting, social issues, crime, race and policing, so in a way I’m glad the London/UK riots have stimulated a lot of passionate debate. There is nothing more worrying to me than people who either refuse or see no point in getting involved or having an opinion about politics; saying “It won’t change anything”.

Many of the contributory factors to the riots were political, and we’ve already seen that the discourse and proposed (many draconian) responses will be, so it’s important to understand the political context behind issues like this in order to go any way to solving them (as all parties have previously stated- David Cameron of course has conveniently forgotten his understanding/humanity of yesteryear, of course).

So, firstly I’m saddened.

Sad that shopkeepers in run down areas, with probably no stock insurance won’t be able to regain their livelihoods, adding to the shuttered up blight.

Sad that in the same world where millions in east Africa are at risk of dying of hunger (I blame corrupt govt and religious anti-condom rhetoric for much of that) we have people who have so little context on hardship that they loot their own neighbourhood and pretend that they’re getting what they deserve.

Sad that the media blaming frenzy includes bigotry of almost every shade, and in almost every instance fails to grasp that violence, frustration, bandwagon profiteering and cruelty are neither new nor confined to the poor, unmarried, young, black or any other sector of society.

I’m also heartened by the massive movement of people involved in the #riotcleanup. Hundreds of people with brooms, dustpans and brushes turning up in Clapham, Hackney and across the country, to make good the damage other people caused brings a smile to my face and a little leap to my heart.

For what it’s worth, I have a political theory. I think the riots can be traced back to the selling of council houses. The crucial accompanying theory is my belief that between the carrot and the stick; the carrot seems a much more effective way of maintaining social norms than the stick. The fear of official punishment is often a lot less than the quest for peer approval. So instead of vast police numbers, spending a fortune on jails and punishment, (or maybe an effective addition to) the answer could be in getting society to help to maintain those standards, right?

Here’s the thing: for hundreds of years there have been strong communities of relatively poor (some may say average, as judged by the standards of the past) who lived in subsidised council housing for their entire lives. They knew their neighbours, their parents, extended family, friends from school, staff from local shops all lived in the local area.

My paternal family came from exactly such stock. I remember my Nan in Leeds telling me (on many occasions) that when a new council estate was built, she and my Grandad were proud that their family were invited to be tenants, as they had looked after their previous council house so well, and been model tenants. They were very poor-bringing up 4 kids on one unskilled wage- my grandad went from being a barber to eventually working for decades at the Tetley brewery, but they were proud, clean, law abiding and have turned out, at last count 19 descendants of varying levels of education, but all of whom are working, law abiding and grateful for the chances they have been given. Amongst all of us, the fear of parental, family and social disapproval is a far greater disincentive to crime than the tiny chance of being caught.

So, what happened when council houses were sold off? One family, often from the exact same stock as mine, gain a goldmine-a foot on the ladder, a sense of ownership and a stake in their financial future. But as the houses were sold and not replaced, and the original buyers move on; sometimes making a healthy profit along the way the community changes. The estates where everyone knew each other now have various houses split into privately rented flats (better rental return that way) with transient tenants in. The inflating housing bubble-exascerbated by the lack of affordable long term rental property, makes the privately owned ex-council stock the only property reachable for first time buyers, who move in for a few years – never intending to make this their home or where they raise their family. After a few years of decreasing social connections/pride, a few of the houses get a bit run down, then the only landlords interested are the low level private landlords who rent out ex council property for more than the council would, in a worse state of repair.

Now we get into the much touted ‘broken windows’ theory. Once a neighbourhood goes this way, it’s incredibly hard to regain its social glue, and meanwhile all the people living within it have a constantly reducing sense of social collective responsibility, and the results are clear.

None of this is to say that parents, schools, stop-and-search and ASBOs, unemployment, despair and a materially driven media don’t bear some responsibility; but in Africa they say “It takes a whole village to bring up a child” and where one or more of the above are failing, having no social safety net is hardly the way to learn that society includes you.