The chaos and wanton destruction of the past week has provoked a new bout of soul-searching within Britain. In the race to identify the origins of the rot that spread out to consume an alarming number of our communities, politicians, broadcasters, journalists, and British citizens have scrutinised the social fabric of the nation and unearthed a rich variety of possible answers. The public can already choose from a range of conceptual lenses through which they can interpret the acts of rioting, looting and murder that have so shaken the national psyche. It is tempting for the politically conscious to grasp at the interpretation that best accords with their stance on the political spectrum to the exclusion of all others, and understand the rioting through the distortions of their personal ideological prisms.
There are many who have already taken this course of action, and are lashing out in screen and print with their own half-formed ideas on the cause of the rioting. The Daily Mail published Melanie Philips’ decidedly right-wing analysis of the riots, attributing “the violent anarchy” of the last several days to “the three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.” On the other end of the spectrum, Nina Power has projected the London riots as the inevitable manifestation of an unequal society where “the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country”.
In a previous post, Alex evaluated the riots as an economic equation balancing costs and benefits. Labour and their supporters have spouted dozens of statistics in a bid to prove a link exists between economic instability with social disorder. Such analysis may appear cold, sterile and unappealing to the passions of many who want to brand those responsible as “scum”, “feral”, and “evil” in order to vent their understandable frustration. But it has to be recognized, it must be understood that there is a real, tangible link between economic permutations and social unrest.
It also has to be made brilliantly clear that there is a link between personal economic success and psychological resilience. I have discussed the correlation between unemployment and mental health in a previous article, but still many will state that an individual’s employment status is detached from their internal moral compass. The real link must be made more explicit.
Why does a certain individual see a discarded brick, pick it and throw it through a window, while another walks on by? Why does one teenager loot while another, who has the same ability to take what he wants and the knowledge that no-one will stop him, attempt to prevent him?
The answer lies in the individual’s psychological make-up, and the temperament of the invisible policeman of his conscience. However it can never, never be said that the mental state of any individual is constructed in a vacuum. The argument that the environment an individual grows in shapes his character is termed ‘behaviourism’, and is studied as a branch of moral philosophy. It has featured many times as part of discussions on incidences of supposed moral disintegration, perhaps most recently in Britain with the 1993 murder of Jamie Bulger, when Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair said: “We hear of crimes so horrific they provoke anger and disbelief in equal proportions… These are the ugly manifestations of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name.”
Would those words being any less aptly used today?
Were the riots a product of moral disintegration in some sections of our community? Yes – and the right is quick to acknowledge this. What it fails to do, and what the left must impress upon the public, is that this moral disintegration occurred in community environments that bred contempt, hate, and anger, and that these environments have been allowed to flourish because of institutional failures that neither Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron have successfully addressed.
The depressed communities of Tottenham, Hackney, Birmingham, Salford and elsewhere have been failed by both left and right. They have been cut-off and isolated from the rest of society just as the rich and powerful have cloistered themselves away in opulent London enclaves.
The Prime Minister has been careful with his choice of language over the last couple of weeks, but I applaud him for acknowledging that this is still “our” society, thereby implicating all peoples and classes in the shame that has engulfed our country. As he stated in the Commons, “There are pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick”.
When one part of the body falls ill, the rest will soon follow unless immediate action is taken. That action cannot be isolated to condemnation, imprisonment, punishment and further deprivation. To do so would be to poison these environments further, and conjure up an even greater storm a decade down the line.
Instead, the link between deprivation and disruption needs to be made more explicit than ever, and severed once and for all.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabian Blog.