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Why Wales escaped the riots

Why did the riots that swept through urban England last week stop at the Welsh border? And how has the Welsh reaction differed to that of the English?
John Osmond
17 August 2011

For the more thoughtful of commentators last week’s riots have provoked a questioning about what it means to be English. Where does England go from here? was the strap line above a piece by Henry Porter in Sunday’s Observer. Remarking that the riots had delivered as great a shock to England as the home-grown suicide bombers did in 2005, he added:

“Actually, last week may even be more shocking because we have no-one else to blame – no foreign extremist ideology to hand, no external threat of any kind. This was ours to own – a materialist, ugly, violent Olympiad of lawlessness, mortifyingly laid bare for the world to see …. This was us at our very worse, and it is significant that while the riots spread to cathedral cities and market towns, they did not cross England’s borders to Wales and Scotland, a fact that will certainly encourage a sense of differentiation in both countries.”

It’s worth probing some of the differences that may explain why the contagion has not spread across the border. In the first place Wales is altogether on a different scale to England. It is not just a question of population size – Wales’ three million compared with a little over 51 million for England – but the urban experience as well. Cardiff, Wales’ capital and largest city has a population short of 350,000, and is more comparable with say Nottingham (301,000) or Derby (340,000), than Bristol (441,00) or Liverpool (450,000).

As significantly, the wealth and income gap between the least and most well off is much smaller in Wales than most of England, and certainly that found in London and the South East. To see why this contrast is important look no further than The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, a book first published by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in 2009. It explores the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It claims, too, that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, teenage pregnancies, child well-being, and significantly for the argument being pursued here – violence – outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.Although most Welsh people now live in an urban milieu, the background culture of Welsh society is more rural and close-knit village-style communities than the cityscapes that characterise the bulk of the English experience. We have far smaller immigrant communities as well and those that are here tend to be more deep-rooted.

Related to this background economic reality is what I would argue is the dominant ideological outlook that characterises Welsh politics and to a great extent shared across the parties – even these days some in the Welsh Conservatives – and that is social democracy. Ironically, perhaps, the best survey of this approach to politics was published posthumously by the English historian Tony Judt in his Ill fares the land (2010). As he put it:

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.”

This could have been uttered by any one of the MPs speaking in the House of Commons last week, from David Cameron to Ed Miliband. Judt argues that Social Democrats share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance, but in public policy believe in the virtue of collective action for the collective good:

“Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.”

As I say, in the Welsh political context this passes for mainstream thinking. Can the same be said for the English? It does not seem so. Thatcherism, followed by the years of Tony Blair extolled different virtues, of competition and individual opportunity and took its eye off the importance of the public realm. As Tony Judt concluded in a notable essay in the New York Review of Books: 

“All around us, even in a recession, we see a level of individual wealth unequaled since the early years of the twentieth century. Conspicuous consumption of redundant consumer goods—houses, jewelry, cars, clothing, tech toys—has greatly expanded over the past generation. In the US, the UK, and a handful of other countries, financial transactions have largely displaced the production of goods or services as the source of private fortunes, distorting the value we place upon different kinds of economic activity. The wealthy, like the poor, have always been with us. But relative to everyone else, they are today wealthier and more conspicuous than at any time in living memory. Private privilege is easy to understand and describe. It is rather harder to convey the depths of public squalor into which we have fallen.” 

All of this applies much more to England and the English south-east than it does to Wales. So, too, did the immediate reaction of most voices coming out of England, which emphasised vengeance rather than comprehension. Here, in contrast we struck a consensual note typified by the view of the Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan, who  spoke of pockets of deprivation in the cities, affected by the rioting, leaving people with nothing to lose. As he put it:

“I don’t want to condone those who have destroyed property and who’ve killed people. On the other hand, I think we have to ask deeper questions: What causes young people, and really young people, to behave in such a desperate way? To behave in a way that they think is acceptable? There are pockets of our cities that are totally deprived, that are poor, that they’ve got nothing to lose. I think, therefore, we have got to look at that deeper question about what causes people to feel so desperate that they can go out and they don’t care about the consequences. And we have to ask what sort of moral example are they being set by those in authority or positions of power? Headline after headline over the past few years has revealed a society made ‘sick’ by greed and selfishness from the top down. We’ve got bankers who’ve been helping themselves to excessively large and unjustified bonuses and MPs exploiting the expenses system. We have also seen senior police officers resigning in the wake of newspaper phone-hacking scandals. So any plan to tackle the ‘moral collapse’ is likely to fall on deaf ears without a clean sweep of the boardrooms as well as the streets.”

This piece was originally published on ClickOnWales.org. 

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