Riots in England: we must stay calm and plan for the future

As looting breaks out in several English towns and cities, it is hoped those who have broken the law are brought to justice. But we must all acknowledge our role in these awful events rather than simply condoning all those involved as "nihilistic thugs".
Andrew Mycock
10 August 2011

As I write, the centre of city I love is being burnt and looted. Manchester has a celebrated traditional for riotous assembly but the scenes this evening have nothing to do the valiant political acts of yesteryear. It is clear that the Prime Minister has failed in his attempts to arrest the slow decline of England’s cities in chaos. It is also clear that contagion has inspired copycat replication of the wanton criminality and damage to property seen in London over the past few days. There can be no justified reason for young people to endanger or ruin the lives of others or that citizens should live in fear. The government needs to take whatever action required in re-establishing law and order.

It is hard to be objective in these difficult times, particularly as it is clear that many of those involved appear to be out of control. But suggestions that these are the first post-political riots fail to acknowledge their multiple causes and broader issues concerning the segregation of young people from mainstream society. The Prime Minister’s assertion that "this is criminality, pure and simply" may have been politically expedient but it merely contributed to a misguided narrative that suggests the riots are the product of a criminal nihilistic generation of feral youths high on consumerism.

But as Laurie Penny has rightly noted, "violence is rarely mindless". Those involved are drawn from various backgrounds and their motivations diverse. Certainly there is the involvement of organised gangs and much of the looting appears to be orchestrated through social media sites. But this is also a cry for recognition from a section of society who are often overlooked and patronised by politicians and treated as outsiders by much of adult society.

The government has consistently failed to understand the scale of challenges faced by young people today, particularly those from disadvantaged communities with chronic problems of residual poverty, high youth unemployment, cyclical family and social dysfunction and political alienation. Over one in five 18-24 year-olds are unemployed, this being three times the national average, with one in three in Manchester living in a jobless household. Unemployment at such a young age undermines self-esteem and also builds resentment. Responses to youth unemployment have been insubstantial though, with too much faith being placed in the private sector to provide short-term panaceas to long-term problems, particularly for those NEETS who are also not in education or training.

The Coalition have invested considerable political capital in justifying cuts in public sector funding rather than listening to those professionals who have been warning of potential unrest. It has undertaken a programme of cuts that have disproportionately hit youth services, closing youth clubs and other support services that have often succeeded in connecting with those young people on the periphery of society. Although the riots are not a direct product of the cuts, they have been instrumental in the alienation of some young people. This rapid rolling back of the remit of the state has diluted the link between young citizens and the state, leaving many disorientated and unsure of their place or worth in society.

The arbitrary nature of the imposition of the cuts has reinforced this sense of grievance. The withdrawal of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the trebling of university tuition fees saw large numbers of young people from across all sections of society to march in protest. Many of those demonstrating believed they were right to question why those making such decisions had been afforded education rights that were now being withdrawn. Government has however been largely unmoved, piously sticking to their misguided mantra that ‘we are all in it together’ to justify unfair reforms of further and higher education funding.

The success of the Coalition in propagating a pessimistic narrative that emphasises the parlous state of the economy and public finances is also a contributing factor. Although young people are not responsible for the current financial crisis, they will be hit hardest. Intergenerational resentment is not a new phenomenon but young people today feel uniquely damned. They are sensitive to potential that they will have to pare back their ambitions before fully reaching adulthood. Many fear a life of financial insecurity underpinned by declining living standards with little hope of getting on the property ladder or an early retirement.

To simply blame the Coalition though is misguided. The alienation of some young people is a product of a broader shift in political thinking over the past three decades which has increasingly prioritised responsibilities over rights without consideration of their relative vulnerability in society. Of course young people and parents need to accept their responsibilities to society and to uphold the law. But there has been a gradual abrogation of the responsibilities of the state towards young people which is rarely acknowledged by politicians.

This curtailment of the role of the state has been viewed as politically expedient. Many of the young people most affected are not old enough to vote whilst those who can have become increasingly disengaged from a political system which increasingly focuses on older voters. Attempts to give young people a greater voice are regularly undertaken by governments. These rarely involve reform of the political system or party politics though, instead seeking to expand avenues of engagement without addressing issues of youth empowerment.

It is hoped that those who have broken the law are swiftly brought to justice – they are destroying my beloved city. But there is a need remain objective. We must all acknowledge our role in these awful events rather than to simply condone all those involved as ‘nihilistic thugs’. The government must learn from this experience and develop a strategic plan to ensure we do not fail future generations. There is urgent need for greater government intervention and investment to get young people off the streets and into sustainable programmes of training and employment. They must also develop youth citizenship to ensure young people who feel disempowered and isolated from politics and society are valued and given a voice. We cannot fail the next generation.

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