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“The Best Three Days of My Life”
Peter Kellow writes
So said a participant in the riots in the Kingdom in the summer of 2011: “these were the best three days of my life”. Listening to interviews with other rioters following the events, you could see this feeling was widespread. For once in their lives, it was they who were in control. The police were next to powerless – at least for a few hours. Normal obstacles and constraints were removed. The mentality of the crowd reassured that you were on the winning side. If only it could have lasted forever.
This begs the obvious question: if these were the best days of your life, what must the rest of your life be like? If we did not know before just how awful a lot of people’s lives are in Britain, then the riots have certainly told us.
We are revisiting the 2011 riots at this time, because of the publication of the report by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel on the events, and in doing so we are also reopening the question that was endlessly posed at the time: should we seek deeper causes for the behaviour or should we just say the rioters were criminals and must take responsibility for their own actions?
If we take the latter position then we can wash our hands of the matter. We don’t need to look for problems in society. We can remind ourselves that not everyone from a deprived background rioted so just let’s be severe with the relatively few that did.
Darra Singh, chair of Riots Communities and Victims Panel
With the passing of time, the discussion has tended to move to accepting that society has to take at least some of the blame.
Concretely, what is the new report recommending? The main focus is on action on schools. It is said also that “local business” should get involved (implying that multinationals can stay out of it, in spite of their much greater resources). The reality is, of course, that it is difficult for the government to get any businesses to do much and can only rely on persuasion. The schools are a different matter. The government has them directly in its firing line.
By concentrating on schools as being able to provide a solution, the report gives the government a let out. For, by saying that action to prevent further riots must be taken in the schools, it is effectively putting the blame for the riots on the schools, for presumably if these measures had already been in place the riots would been less likely to have happened.
The report wants primary and secondary schools to "undertake regular assessments of pupils' strength of character". This would be laughable if it were not serious. Teachers, parents and pupils already complain of too much testing in the schools and now it seems we should have more. And this new test is so nebulous in its aims that it could not possibly have any value. But then we get to the real reason for having these “character” tests. The report wants a basis for fining the schools if they don’t meet the necessary standards
The reports specifies that "Every child should be able to read and write to an age-appropriate standard by the time they leave primary and then secondary school," and that "If they cannot, the school should face a financial penalty equivalent to the cost of funding remedial support to take the child to the appropriate standard."
Now we really are taking leave of our senses. Let’s read that sentence in the report again just to make sure we understood it the first time round:
“... the school should face a financial penalty equivalent to the cost of funding remedial support to take the child to the appropriate standard.”
How on earth is the cost of this “remedial support” to be accessed? And in any case, what is it?
The Riots Communities and Victims Panel has introduced a whole new principle for public services here whereby if they do not come up to scratch they can be sued for undefined amounts of money to sort out the societal mess they supposedly created.
David Lammy, who is MP for Tottenham, where the riots started, points out that schools in Tottenham are doing very well and have just reported record GCSE results. Oh, but how would they have fared with the “regular assessments of pupils' strength of character” proposed by the Panel? Not so good we might assume. And so they could expect that their budgets would be hit with a hefty fine. The fact that resources to continue the improvement in exam results would be lost seems not to trouble the Panel.
One can imagine the stigma that would stick to this school as being branded a cause of rioting and anti-social behavior. How could parents have any confidence in it? It would go on a slippery slope so that it could be closed down and replaced by the latest government fad in education.
Insensitivity to the damaging effects of stigma seems is something on which this government has form.
This was seen in the body that they set up following the riots to tackle the problem (however the problem is defined). They established a Troubled Families Programme which identified “troubled” families who then could be helped in various ways. This programme has been criticized in the Riots Communities and Victims Panel’s report as targeting the wrong people and its seems not many of the families concerned had members who did any rioting.
But what makes the cabinet seem so insensitive and uncaring is that they could call the families concerned “troubled”. To be officially declared “troubled” must be creating strains within the families and with their relationships with others.
All this gives the impression of thrashing around to try to address the problem posed by last summer’s temporary breakdown of law and order. Abuse of alcohol, single parent families, estrangement, lack of discipline and even too much advertising of brands and much more, are all thrown into the mix. If any proposals for action come out of these analyses they are inevitably piecemeal. Together they make the problem more confused than ever. Individually they represent a series of dramatic oversimplications.
The great twentieth century philosopher, Karl Jaspers, said:
Simplicity is the shape of that which is true.
Simplification is the violence that takes the place of lost simplicity
If we are ever to get to grips with this problem we need to introduce some direct simplicity in our understanding. A cart load of simplifications will never get us anywhere
Ultimately the people who rioted and looted understood what they were doing in simple terms. We, who did not riot, can understand the simple feeling that motivated them – anger. This was a straightforward anger for all the reasons that have been so widely discussed, at all the things we already know about. It was this release of anger that made those three days so important to the lives of some.
We can go on from that simple feeling to identifying a simple cause – injustice. For our society has returned to being one of the most unjust, unequal societies that there has been since slavery was abolished.
While the superrich rentier class take in amounts of money that did not even exist on the whole planet fifty years ago, the poor who are “bumping along the bottom” have nothing. Some of us have opportunities to advance ourselves and pay for higher education, others are excluded from such opportunities.
Some of us have made small fortunes just by owning a house while others are paying rent for insecure tenancies. The expression “deprived” has become commonplace to describe many of our citizens.
Injustice exists everywhere at every level and in a multitude of different ways and it touches every one of us, rich or poor, and degrades the quality of the lives of all, rich and poor.
A search of the Panel’s report did not turn up the word injustice once. Yet it is the key to understanding the problem they were addressed and the key to understanding what we must do
But the current parties do not think in these terms either. They may use the weak word “fairness” as an aim of policy, but it is far from clear what they mean by it. They certainly do not mean the deeper injustices inbuilt into British society at the beginning of the 21st century
Injustice will always be with us as long as we have a democratic system dominated by big money. It will always be with us as long as we tolerate deprived communities within our midst that have no hope and no stake in the society to which we all belong. It will always be with us as long as we have a constitution that places inherited wealth at its centre.
The current coalition government fiddles around with the problem. Labour fiddles around with counter proposals. None can address the big simple issue of injustice because they are part of it. To dismantle injustice would means dismantling the very strata of society that sustain their existence and informs their policy. Injustice is built into the politics at the heart of our government.
Simple injustice does not need to be analysed to be felt. It is felt most by the greatest victims of it.
A Pathetic Defence of the Monarchy
Comment from Member Richard O'Connor
I watched Question time that late evening, and I was disappointed at the stupid responses for keeping a monarch.
Not one of the panelists cared about accountability or democracy. No hint of a constitution to be protected from the Members of parliament of the day. Just propaganda...
There was no passion to have republican principles, with the exception of the panelist who was an author, good on her!
Comment from Member Richard Middleton
I didn't see the programme but was fascinated by your description of it, Peter. If you provided a more extensive service of this type, I could stop buying the Radio Times and sell my telly!
It is very depressing that that people are so obsessed with the superficial in this country. The tide of republicanism seems to have retreated a little because the last wave was really driven by anti-Royalist energy (and anti-Charles energy in particular). Now that the Royal PR machine has had a chance to work its magic for a few years, they\'re all waving their little Union Jacks again (literally as well as metaphorically).
However, I was heartened by your account of David Dimbleby. I have always thought that he is the most intelligent, versatile and disinterested of our "serious" presenters. [He does have quite a good sense of humour, which is often apparent.] The contrast with his brother, who caused controversy by appearing to support the Prince of Wales in a very personal way during an "Any Questions" debate some years ago, has been marked (although Jonathan has changed a lot in recent years).
I believe that the real problems are class consciousness or snobbery and our trivial "celebrity" culture, promoted and expressed by television and tabloid newspapers. The Royal Family is at the apex of both systems and, so, in true panto tradition, it is either very popular or quite unpopular. It depends on the mood of the audience.
Somehow, we need to get people to make the connection between the problems that they are experiencing, on the one hand, and our rotten political and economic systems, on the other. The Crown-in-Parliament (a legal entity that creates the potential for dictatorship, despite what Uncle 'Arold 'ad to say) sits atop both.
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