There seems no end of people expressing their opinions on the cause and cure of riotous behaviour in England. Probably because a tinge of uneasiness makes us suspect it could happen here. Before adding to the outpouring of words, I was taken aback to discover that Winston Peters, of all people, made sense of this issue with a one sentence sound bite. More of that later.
There are two streams to the cause and cure arguments. Authoritarian and liberal. The extreme authoritarian view is that public order is paramount. No matter what their social circumstances, everyone has a choice and there is no excuse for criminal behaviour. Regardless of the example set by the rulers, the law must be obeyed.
The extreme liberal view examines the social causes of criminal behaviour, implying that the behaviour of law-breakers is justified by poverty and inequality. I sit between these extremes. I agree there is no excuse for vandalism, arson and theft but I also believe that social deprivation and the questionable conduct and attitudes of rulers is part of the problem.
I want the guilty to be punished but can’t help wondering about the origins of this mayhem. How did these people get that way? What was it about the upbringing of their parents that left their children with such anti-social tendencies? What kind of communities do they live in that makes this behaviour acceptable? All societies do this; put a lot of thought and study into why a minority of people wreak havoc from time to time. If equal time was put into exploring the reasons why the majority act responsibly we’d all be better off.
We know about the underclass don’t we? Uneducated, unemployed, nothing to look forward to. Yet according to a Guardian court reporter on duty at Highbury Court following the London riots “the underclass stereotype did not apply.” Most of the accused were adolescents or in their twenties “but a surprising number were older, predominantly white, and many had jobs.” But only a minority had no criminal record, which tends to explain a lot.
Included in the queue of accused lining up in court was a postman and his A level student nephew, and a 31-year-old man who worked at a school. And probably there were some rioters who felt ashamed the next day, wondering what came over them. But despite the sprinkling of offenders who could not possibly be described as underclass, one is left with a strong impression of gangs, soccer hooligan types, and young people with a grievance seeing an opportunity to get something for nothing, have one hell of a buzz while doing it, and get back at them.
For many of these individuals there is probably no hope of change. No matter what the political and social system. But the thought that many of these young people reflect the standards of the society that raised them is compelling. While it seems a mystery to governments, educationalists and psychologists, most ordinary adults educated before the mid sixties have no difficulty identifying decline of behaviour standards in schools, a shrugged acceptance of girls calmly deciding to have babies without the means to keep them, another shrug when young men impregnate women and move on, both heading for the indulgent government department that’s sure to sort out the finances.
Some older adults would also say the advent of ceaseless shopping and entertainment hours deprived society of quiet time, which disappeared with the Sabbath. All would agree it is not only young, poor people who are out of control.
Here’s an idea for generating anger and cynicism: Get members of parliament to help themselves to things they are not entitled to. Have business leaders routinely treat themselves to millions in bonuses while keeping wages as low as possible. Suggest bankers and allied money men act like mad gamblers for years then rescue them with taxpayers’ money and watch them bounce back as though nothing of importance has happened. And as an afterthought, get the police, government ministers and bent journalists to form a murky self-serving secret society. That should do it.
No matter how much I write I do not have the answers. I confess that Winston Peters came close to the truth when he said: “We are witnessing the result of the failure of both irresponsible capitalism and welfarism without integrity.”