When a liberal is mugged by reality

The conservative analysis of these riots is the most straightforward and, we have to admit, the one that often appears to make most sense. But it will only get us so far in guiding us in what to do next.

They have rioted, trashed, looted, burnt and brought havoc to our cities’ streets. They have intimidated and terrified local residents. They have also attacked my liberal sensibilities.

How do you watch and read about the scenes over the last few days without feeling nothing short of utter revulsion and anger towards the perpetrators?

How do you watch masked and unmasked youths (and adults in some cases) taunting the police, brazenly raiding shops and then casually walking off, cradling the stolen goods, in full view of the authorities and the media, and not scream at the TV, at your computer screens, hoping someone grabs one of them and does their very worst?

I have felt all of these things as events have unfolded since Saturday’s unrest in Tottenham, which now seems an age ago. Liberal sensibilities indeed. 

And I make no apologies. I believe they are a perfectly natural and emotional response to what has taken place. How can you feel anything but enormous sympathy for local people who have been made homeless, or those who have seen their businesses and livelihoods destroyed?

The kind of people interviewed on TV, many of them second or third generation immigrants, who talk about coming to this country, opening up a shop, doing 14 hour days, 7 days a week, only to see everything they have worked for so cruelly taken away.

Predictably, we have the divide between those who just want to condemn outright, and then punish all those behind these riots, and those (currently a small minority if comment pieces and blogs are anything to go by) who want us to look past the usual hyperbole and outrage and start addressing the reasons behind such behaviour.

Some have argued that it is “authoritarian” to blame the consumerist-I want it quick and I want it now and I don’t want to have to work for it-culture, or to blame our soft criminal justice system which fails to penalise persistent offenders.

Yet there are many people who subscribe to this position who will take issue with this label and say they are anything but.

As always the issue of parenting, or lack of, crops up. While watching the scenes on TV you could have been forgiven for asking yourself whether these kids’ parents knew, or even cared, where their children were.

 Debates over the quality of modern day parenting have been raging for years, so much so that something that was first mentioned during Labour’s time in office, was mooted once again, with the release of a report last year by the former Labour minister, Frank Field, and his suggestions that all new parents should have to take parenting classes.

 The notion of the absent father is also nothing new, with various  commentators wondering whether the enormous number of single parent families in areas such as Tottenham can be explained as a factor.

This is particularly the case in the Afro-Caribbean community, with previous government ministers blaming it in helping to fuel gang crime, and even Barack Obama, before he became president, using a Father’s Day speech to be critical of dads who abrogated their responsibilities.

Many will call for prison sentences for each and every protagonist, but with reoffending rates at 74% for young offenders only a year after leaving prison, this merely papers over the cracks, keeps the populist media happy and works as a very short term solution.

The obvious disregard the youths have for the police highlights the lack of respect for authority that many, not just on the right, lament.

The sight of them openly mocking the police, while at times seeming able to loot with impunity, is one of the things that will justifiably have had people fuming. If their parents can’t control them, and the police won’t intervene, what does this say about the kind of society we live in?

This brings us to old-fashioned (which doesn’t necessarily mean bad) calls for a return to community peer pressure, or (god help me) a taste of The Big Society.

 A return to an age where people could be publically shamed or reprimanded without fear of recourse. Try and do something like that now and you’ll probably be on the end of a barrage of verbal abuse or even worse, whilst people around you, rather than supporting you, will twitch awkwardly and look the other way.

But, this is the kind of thing that seems long gone, unless you’re this brave woman, filmed having at go at a group of rioters in Hackney.

Before we address the ‘why’ questions, it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that all we witnessed were a bunch of opportunistic thugs, indulging in a spot of late afternoon/evening copycat criminal activity.

Nothing more, nothing less. Groups of fearless teenagers breaking into shops and stealing because they could, knowing that if they ever went up before the courts, they’d either get a slap on the wrist in the form of light community service or a fine, which they couldn’t afford to pay, anyway.

And you know what, these arguments seem pretty plausible to me. You can blame government cuts, poverty, deprivation and alienation all you want, but sometimes the simple explanation might be the best. They wanted a night out rioting, the notoriety, and the chance to get on YouTube.

The trouble is this only gets you so far. Once all of this has blown over, we really have got to deal with some rather important issues.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, who has spent well over a decade dealing with thousands of the same kind of young people who have caused mayhem on our streets, speaks of “parallel antisocial communities with different rules,” and a survival of the fittest ‘subculture.’

In opposition, Iain Duncan Smith spent time looking into the reasons behind such things as educational failure and unemployment in certain communities up and down the country.

He pointed to the almost doubling of the prison population as evidence that the government had failed to “tackle the social breakdown within which crime thrives.”

Time and again our politicians have sought to tackle the causes of crime, but at the first mutterings from the right wing press, have reverted to type, and promised to build more prisons and called for tougher sentencing.

Prophetically, one government cut that was predicted to have disastrous consequences, were the ones to youth services. Last year, Sir Paul Ennals, the head of the National Children’s Bureau’ charity, warned of the possibility of social unrest, believing it could mean “young people become progressively disengaged from their own communities.”

Whether this can be partly blamed on the disturbances is hard to prove. But, the more activities that exist to keep our hyperactive young occupied can only be a positive thing.

We are regularly told that our young are miserable, poorly educated and feel neglected. Report after report suggests that society has been ignoring all the warning signs and has instead concentrated on getting richer, while the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has widened to record levels.  

Whether you agree with some of these explanations or not doesn’t really matter. Events are still raw – this may go on for a few days yet – and the public will clearly not be ready to listen to the ‘why’ arguments.

Heck, my Facebook page and tweets have been filled with all manner of rantings and ravings against the rioters. But, the need to start to look at the bigger picture must happen soon, and it is this belief that I guess makes me a liberal.

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