The Riots. Economic Enfranchisement is the Key.
Peter Kellow writes
Novelists have a habit of describing facial gestures that don’t always quite work. What do “a tightening of the nostrils”, “a lowering of the eyelids” or “a sucking of the teeth” actually signify in the way of emotional reaction. There is probably a vocabulary of bodily expressions stored somewhere in a lot of novel readers’ minds that they have instant access to. But, I must confess, my personal “look up” often fails me. I cannot faithfully read what these expression mean.
However, now, thanks to a discussion between conservative minister, Michael Gove, and Labour MP, Harriet Harman, on Newsnight this week, I have at least one of these facial expressions fully and properly recorded with its signified reaction thoroughly nailed. This is “the quivering lower lip”.
Harman was putting forward the typically liberal point of view that, in order to address the problem of the recent riots in Tottenham and elsewhere, we have to look at the social conditions that might have contributed to them. Gove didn’t want to hear about that. His only view on the riots was that the perpetrators should be apprehended and punished. They were criminals who had decided to steal and there was no background that needed exploring to perhaps reveal some underlying causes we should address.
While listening to Harman, Gove was clearly dumbstruck. His reasoning faculty was on hold while the emotions took over. He sat there glowering at Harman. And, yes, that lower lip was actually, really, quivering – just like the novelists describe. Inside he was boiling with anger that was barely being contained. The quivering action, like the lid on the boiling kettle, showed it all.
This confrontation demonstrated in simple fashion the two responses that the riots have provoked. On the one hand the only thing that matters was that the “vile people” who committed the crimes of arson and theft should be punished as severely as possible. On the other hand we should look for causes and try to find faults in our society that may have provoked this mass behaviour.
In truth, both points of view are right. They do not conflict with one another because the first is a short term reaction and the second a long term one. We can carry out the first immediately and follow on later with the other. We can deal with the offenders now without losing sight of what lessons need to be learned.
What is amazing is that Gove and his ilk cannot accept this simple reasonable argument. They are vocally hostile to any consideration of faults in society that may start to explain the spontaneous mass looting and vandalism. They seem to believe that any move in this direction would begin to excuse the crimes committed. Everything in society is fine. It is just human nature that is at fault.
Prime Minister David Cameron might appear on the surface to recognize deeper problems with his current analysis of society being “sick”. Up to now he has only allowed himself the description of society as being “broken”. Whether the diagnosis is broken or sick, he proposes no action to address the problem. Indeed, these terms are so vague as to be hardly helpful in suggesting solutions. Maybe a dose of Cameron’s “big” society would be appropriate, but again the vocabulary fails to point clearly to specific measures.
Some politicians have suggested kicking people out of their council homes and one family in conservative controlled Wandsworth are facing eviction because of the actions of one of its children during the riots. That measure could only be suggested by someone who felt very remote from the communities who have suffered most from the mass criminality we call the “riots”.
The government is flailing around. Cameron tried to blame the police and at the same time suggest that police tactics were only sorted out by him when he returned from his holidays in Tuscany. Questions concerning the police are turning into a whole new sub-story to the riots, as it is exposing the uneasy relationship that exists between our democratically elected politicians and a major public service. It is inbuilt in our current system that politicians will always try to manipulate public services for political gain. This runs through practically all public services.
This relationship between government and public services is very much a Civic Republican concern. Ultimately democracy must offer a route to controlling and determining overall public service policy but we desperately need to put distance between politicians and the operation of public services. Cameron’s way of treating the police over the riots, pretending to have a hands-on influence, is exactly the kind of meddling we need to eliminate. The police understandably hate it and it is hard to believe that it helps them do their job.
The Conservatives' view (their coalition partners seem to be absent from this matter except that Nick Clegg also returned from holiday, highlighting the bizarre fact that PM and Deputy PM took their holidays concurrently, begging the question on who was left in charge) that in spite of society being “sick” or “broken” there is nothing in the longer term in the bigger picture to be done. This view invites unkind comments on the detrimental effects of their isolated, privileged upbringing.
I have written elsewhere about the question of “enfranchisement” in society. For many people the mention of this word means democratic enfranchisement. But democratic enfranchisement is of little use if you do not have, prior to it, “economic enfranchisement”. If you have no work and no hope of work, if you live in the ghastly, graffiti-ridden environment of many inner city council estates, if you have suffered from poor, unsuitable education, then you have no sense of having a stake in society. The matter of being able to vote is of little significance to you. In short, because you are economically disenfranchised, your democratic enfranchisement means nothing. You have no place in society in any important sense.
In order to pull society together and avoid a repetition of the horrific scenes we saw last week, we have to address the problem of economic disenfranchisement. There is no doubt that the people involved in the riots are not normally economically enfranchised in the way that other citizens may be. They suffer an acute sense of exclusion. That does not justify criminal behaviour but few would deny that there is a causal link between the feeling of total disenfranchisement and the mass looting and arson we saw in our streets.
Ironically, while all this was going on Chancellor, George Osborne, was announcing to the House of Commons that, as a result of his austerity policy, Britain was a “safe haven for investors”. By this he meant that, by screwing the economy down to reduce government borrowing, he had kept the exchange rate of the pound reasonably high so that global speculators would not be afraid, for the moment, to park some of their ridiculously inflated wealth in these islands. In congratulating himself, he did not seem to see any link between the way the superrich are treated and the way the poorer sections are.
Anger is something that we can all be moved to in respect of different things. But I just wonder how often the reminder, that Britain is suffering, and will suffer, obscene amounts of hardship because of the actions of the financial elite, will succeed in making make Michael Gove’s lip tremble.
I think we know the answer to that one.
Recommended article of the week
The subject of this piece, Chavez Campbell, a promising amateur boxer, grew up in a single-parent family in a deprived area and has 12 half-brothers and -sisters. Walking to the Dale Youth amateur boxing club in west London, he says the sport turned his life around after he was excluded from school for fighting, aged 11. "These coaches are like my parents. The same level of respect I have for my mum, I have for them," he says. "They love me, they give me good advice. If I started going down the wrong path, they would tell me to sort it out."
Without the guidance of the men who worked, unpaid, in the club, things could have been different. "That could have been me out there," he said. "Kids lack confidence, they don't believe they can do stuff. You have to find something you like doing, not what everyone else is doing. They don't have enough courage to be themselves. I want kids to see that they can do something with their lives and not just run around the roads causing mayhem."
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