Restoring the peace

Let’s get this straight from the start: These riots are bad, wrong, horrible, destructive, devastating and heartbreaking. We also have a legal system to deal with those who have clearly broken the laws of the land. We have seen in recent days what can happen if the rule of law breaks down. If we don’t have the rule of law, what do we have?

What is happening on the streets of a number of towns and cities is causing a lot of people from all political backgrounds to examine their consciences and beliefs. It’s at times like these that we find out just how strong our principles and our beliefs are.

What is happening affects us all – because one way or another, we all pay taxes and it is the taxpayer that will foot a huge financial bill. That’s before we’ve even considered the human cost to all of this – the people who will have been through the trauma of coming face-to-face with the violence that is going on. There will be hundreds and hundreds of innocent victims who will have been traumatized by this.

The first priority has to be the restoration of peace on our streets by the police. Our armed forces’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan tell us this – little can be achieved in the face of widespread violence and civil unrest.

I’m not going to pretend to know what the underlying causes of this – I don’t. On Puffles’ Twitter feed I’ve observed a number of explanations and comments – some sounding more plausible than others.

What I do think though is that what we are seeing on our streets is a symptom of the catastrophic failure of politics and quite possibly, of ‘economics’ too.

Political processes are there to enable us to resolve our differences without resorting to violence and war. When one person riots, that person is in trouble. When thousands of people riot, the rest of us are in trouble too because politics is in trouble.

The breakdown of the basic social contract of “you pay for goods and services that you want to acquire” has also broken down as far as the looters are concerned. What differentiates what’s happening on the streets now compared to the crimes of theft, robbery and burglary is that it is widespread, indiscriminate, systematic and violent. No business can survive in an environment like that – and if businesses cannot survive, then neither can ‘the market’.

Once the police have restored peace to our streets, there will be a lot of difficult questions asked of a lot of people – in particular of our politicians, civic leaders and decision-makers across the public, voluntary and business sectors. The reasons being that we cannot return ‘back to normal’ because ‘normal’ is what got us here in the first place.

If there is to be an independent public inquiry – and I sincerely hope there is, I hope that its remit will be at least as wide and as powerful as the one investigating the phone hacking. It needs to find out how we got to here, why we got to here, how we put a stop to it and how we can prevent this violence on this scale from ever happening again.

19 thoughts on “Restoring the peace

  1. I would have thought there’d *have* to be a public inquiry – there was one after Brixton (and Toxteth? Or were they the same report). The question is, as you say, in what its remit will be and what impact its recommendations have on policy and on wider society. If it’s going to help prevent something like these last few days in the future it will need to do for our socioeconomy what Macpherson attempted to do for the police – structure a whole new set of values into the institution. And that runs up against many more vested interests than Macpherson did.

    But yes, a very reasoned commentary. Thanks.

  2. Very good points. But watching Newsnight this evening and follwing on Twitter I fear that the political debate has become so polarised and political, that there is no proper analysis.

  3. I don’t agree that “‘normal’ is what got us here in the first place”. What got us here was an abnormality, a giant failed social experiment wherein society’s normal absolute approach to morality was deliberately abandoned. We’ve had decades of teachers and parents and members of the public told not to ‘impose’ their views on new generations and a culture of ‘human rights’ that is antithetical to traditional social contract. No one should be in the least bit surprised if two generations later there are swathes of young people who feel there is no constraint on their behaviour. It’s the logical conclusion of that muddle-headed way of thinking.

    On the positive side I think that emerging views point in the other direction. The postmodern ‘New Labour’-style love of smashing anything that smacks of a hangover from ‘the forces of conservatism’ seems to be in retreat. That is not to say that nothing needed to change, but there’s a difference between spreading tolerance/understanding and pretending that any different views have moral equivalence.

  4. @Andrew Bower
    We’ve had decades of teachers and parents and members of the public told not to ‘impose’ their views on new generations…

    Not so much the imposition of views that’s gone to hell in a handbasket for decades, but the imposition of discipline. And look where it’s brought us.

  5. …And herein on the comments board, we have a microcosm of what will happen in weeks to come. The reasoned overview is “something needs to be done”. Someone points out that views will be polarised. Then people start chipping in with opinions which selectively choose contributing factors, and deliver them as causes: liberal teaching methods, indiscipline.
    I have been guilty of it too, blaming primarily ConDem cuts in my blog after the initial riot in Tottenham. The Left blames the Right for social injustice, the Right blames the left for liberal teaching or immigration.
    The truth is that like any other systemic breakdown, e.g. “death by natural causes”, there has been a cascade effect of numerous social problems that lead to this situation: the cutting of social services and benefits, benefits culture, social inequality, conspicuous consumerism, police brutality, liberal teaching methods & what I call the “Cult of the Child” (i.e. the Victorian notion that anyone below 16 is an innocent vessel of sweetness and light), the socio-economic marginalisation of entire generations and communities. It’s easy to pick one answer and point the finger, but the truth is that until this point, that is all we have done in Britain – it is, indeed, the “normal” state of affairs. Unless we step back, culturally, socially, and politically; and examine the root causes in a holistic manner, then things will not improve in the future.

    1. There are quite a few fallacies there, Thierry. First the ‘right’ as you call it has not been blaming immigration. Multiculturalism might be relevant but even that hasn’t been on the radar of conservative commentators. Agreement with the points I made never used to be the preserve of Conservatives in Britain: they are values that used to be pretty important to traditional Labour people I believe. But yes, I do blame elected representatives from the left for primarily furthering the problems I identified.

      It’s not hard to dismiss coalition ‘cuts’ as the cause – even the majority of Labour supporters recognise that – so I won’t even spend time on that aspect, but on ‘social injustice’ I can tell you that the ‘right’ have some pretty strong views on what is responsible for that and it’s not the our policies…

  6. I am afraid all we have seen is an outbreak of criminality. I don’t believe an inquiry is needed, but that is what we will get. We have seen cirminals out ont the rampage for all they can get. Yes things will return to normal. These thugs will, I am afraid, always be with us.

  7. @Andrew: I was using your citation of liberal educational methods as one example of opinions. I never said that you specifically were “the Right”. You just identified one contributing factor when the overall problem has dozens (if not thousands). The “Right” talk came later.
    And the Right have been blaming immigration – “the race of most of the rioters… [is] clearly, and overwhelmingly, Afro-Caribbean, the descendants of immigrants” (Kevin Myers, Irish Independent). And until the Right admit that white collar fraud (£15-17bn) costs more than benefit fraud (£1-2bn) to the UK economy, then you can take your ideas of what ‘social injustice’ is or isn’t, and… re-examine them. And the cuts did contribute – The Guardian featured a vid-clip not 2wks ago about the closure of Haringey youth clubs that stated explicitly that the result would be “violence on the streets”. Coincidence? I think not.

    1. Your single quotation on immigration hardly cuts it, not least because the fragment you quoted doesn’t even imply causality. It’s certainly not a feature of the discourse I’ve witnessed.

      Ah that borough of such good repute that chose to find savings in that particular way. If the absence of said clubs resulted in the riots then they can only have been addressing symptoms not causes. You don’t suddenly lose all restraint because your particular state-funded youth club happens no longer to exist.

  8. @Andrew – Okay then, smart guy, explain why Nick Griffin instantly chalked the Tottenham riots and subsequent copycat incidents down to “race riots” on the BNP website (garnering much semi-illiterate backing from observers in the process).
    My point, if you would care to stop facetiously criticising it and try to engage with the actual argument, rather than picking on minor details which are not in fact wrong, but edited for brevity is that we need to look at society as a whole, not trite soundbites masquerading as solutions, or cheap political point-scoring. This argument is clearly too advanced for many people in society, who prefer easy (and blame-based) answers over self-examination and painfully complex issues.
    Myers, for example, blamed Afro-Caribbean immigrants because – like all at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder – there are statistically higher incidences of absent parents in Afro-Caribbean culture, notably fathers. This single mother rhetoric last reared its ugly head during Thatcher’s era, one which does not recognise the fact that single mothers can raise perfectly well-adjusted and intelligent children – like my mother did – but that their job becomes significantly harder at the sharp end of the economic stick, i.e. money is the problem.
    The loss of youth communities is similarly not the answer, however the youth clubs provided somewhere for disenfranchised youth to go and spend time, occupied. Their alternative is spending time with parents – something rich youths are similarly loathe to do – or hanging around on the streets, thereby incurring the fear, suspicion and hostility of the adult public, most notably the police. Their already limited options have been limited further. Yes the clubs only dealt with symptoms, but the causes were (drum roll) economic disenfranchisement in a society which bombards them with adverts from the capitalist Dream Machine, tales of instant celebrity, or counter-culture ideals of “respect” and – loathe to use the phrase as I am – “bling”, which is nothing more than proving your worth through possessions. The media tells them they can be anything, the reality is somewhat different. This is why one Mancunian man interviewed on BBC News blamed Polish immigrants for the riots, blaming them for despair and joblessness which caused young (white) youths to riot. He seized on the media soundbites of immigration, that MPs of all creeds humour for populist appeal, when the broader problem is in fact global capitalism. Migrants move to make more money, companies move jobs to cheaper countries where possible – both concepts, indeed, absolutely representing free market capitalism. But of course MPs cannot blame the machine they serve, so they blame “foreigners” and “benefit scroungers” – the economic poor – rather than “profiteering multinationals” and “tax evaders” – their friends and future paymasters.
    As I said, it is a rich tapestry with no easy answers.

    1. Thierry,

      I still don’t agree that “the right is blaming immigration”. I am on the right and read a lot of right-wing material, none of which has yet done so. Your examples of assorted ignoramuses and Nick Griffin, a well known racist leading a national socialist party, don’t really shift the truth on this point. However, I just have to accept that you think this to be the case.

      On your other main point, it may surprise you that I no more blame ‘foreigners’ and ‘benefit scroungers’ than ‘profiteering multinationals’ and ‘tax evaders’. I also no more like adverts promoting materialism than the materialism itself that we saw exhibited. But I do think that the instinctive focus that the left promotes that poverty is the cause is dangerous because it could lead to steps that make the problem worse. If the left’s solutions were followed the welfare trap would just get deeper – how is that going to give people hope? Iain Duncan Smith is determined to fix the welfare system and he secured money from the treasury that no one thought he would get to make sure that the carrot comes before the stick so people aren’t left in the lurch (with respect to making work pay).

      But it’s not just about money. There is also a failure of morals. Where was the sense of right and wrong? You can dismiss it as the rantings of a social Conservative if you like (actually, I’m pretty libertarian) but with institutions across the land feeling under pressure for decades never to criticise anyone – an institutional moral relativism – I don’t think it should surprise anyone. “I know my rights!” “You can’t touch me!” or “You’re being racist!”

      On youth clubs, yes I am disappointed that they have been chosen for closure. I don’t think that is a very smart priority, which I assume is a local government decision. However, I am also disappointed that (if) a majority of youth club provision is state-organised. It seems to me something that is a natural function of other parts of society. (I wonder if any other clubs in relevant areas closed previously on account of being crowded out by local authority ones?) Not rationalising government spending and the deficit is simply not an option, unless we want more drastic cuts later, but I do have a strong suspicion that senior local authority officers are proposing the most unpallatable public service cuts rather than endangering their own mini empires.

  9. Excuse me, I may have been over-tired during the last message, seem to be becoming too polemical.
    I don’t pretend to know your personal politics – again I was using the examples of polar extremes found in the media, to sell papers or attract followers (both “sides”). There was, however, and interesting article in the Wall St Journal by a Cambridge professor of Economics recently that basically advocated maintaining welfare for economic recovery (points 2 & 3; HERE> http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2011/08/07/five-false-premises-about-economic-recovery/ ). I’m not suggesting that would solve a lot, but the man I.D.S. is listening to – venture capitalist Sir Ronald Cohen – is championing social finance, which sounds a lot like something I was recently banging on about: “companies giving something back”, being as profit-as-bottom-line is a major problem of our world (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/i-predicted-a-riot-city-sage-who-saw-there-was-trouble-ahead-2340317.html).
    I agree, there has been a loss of morals, and moral relativism is absolutely a part of that. I’m an agnostic, but abide by Korsgaardian principles derived by Kant – that each person is a rational sentient being, an end in themselves (personal addition: until proven otherwise by the violation of other’s end-ness). However, most people in the riots didn’t have the luxury of a £25k loan, or my childhood in books with a teacher mother; so they will abide by what they see: soap drama, film violence, political corruption, and a world of surface, surface, surface – you are what you own.
    I just finished Michael Foley’s excellent book “The Age of Absurdity” (Simon & Schuster), which details why so many people are unhappy (“the absurd nature of contemporary cultural conditioning”), and it resonated so much with much of what has happened – chapters range from things you’ll probably identify with as factors in the riots, like “The Righteousness of Entitlement…” and “The Undermining of Responsibility” to “The Rejection of Difficulty and Understanding”. It’s a cracking read. Anyway perils of moral relativism comes up in that, amongst other things like “respect” culture (and the worship of self-esteem).
    Finally, it probably is a shame that youth clubs must be run by the state, but that’s the nature of our society. As Thatcher said, “there is no such thing as society”. People are atomised, divided by age and race and politics, and it takes a neutral body to provide such a service. Especially in this age of media distrust and fear, of paedophiles, and child abuse (which were an unfortunate feature of earlier private social institutions for youths – religious or secular).
    And you’re spot on about local authorities, and indeed government – I know full well living in Edinburgh (with its notoriously bloated council) and having counted several Customs Officers as friends – all of whom were bemused by the lack of work that went on in their inefficient-yet-unbreakable department.
    For one, I believe it’s time everyone did some sort of literal social contract at school-leaving age – an official statement of terms. For two, I genuinely believe it’s time the mega-corporations of this world stepped in and offered people incentives for National Service, in the non-military mould (or military if they really want). In Germany objectors could choose Civil Duty instead. Why not two years of that? Public and/or volunteer sector work, for benefit credits and/or corporate incentives. The corporations get brand identification, the youngsters get a sense of purpose, something to do, and a taste of working and discovering work isn’t so bad. Not bad for a lefty, eh?😉

  10. That’s the spirit, Thierry! Now for my part I’m about to spend four days embedded with hoardes of lefties…🙂

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