So we've had three days of riots across England - mostly London-based but spreading to Birmingham and Manchester over the past few days. Things have started to calm down now but that just means people are increasingly casting around for someone to blame and to try, in a largely reactionary way, to suggest ways to deal with the aftermath. I don't have any kind of solution for this particular brand of lunacy but just wanted to get a couple of things off my chest.
Ken Livingstone yesterday referred to the rioters as protestors. Well they're not. I'm sorry but that's the long and the short of it. Protest implies you're protesting against something rather than just stealing plasma TVs and designer clothes "because it's free innit". This whole episode may have begun with a protest (against the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham) but it seems clear that this legitimate protest was soon hijacked by those looking for trouble - as per the student protests last Autumn. I'm not saying there aren't serious underlying social issues at work behind this violence but these are long term factors created by decades of social mismanagement by politicians of all stripes. The fervid media attitude towards cuts in public spending combined with a resurgence of global economic problems has made the world feel a less secure place. In my opinion you can't say that an austerity programme less than 9 months old and only marginally more severe than the programme of cuts proposed by the previous government is a genuine factor here. Both the rhetoric and the growing reality of public expenditure cuts is a potential trigger factor but not a root cause.
It has also been suggested that abolition of the Education Maintainance Allowance caused young people to riot. Well in one way that's true. EMA is simply a symptom of a culture of entitlement that can be seen throughout society. When I was a teenager (and it's not that long ago) I had no need of EMA to encourage me to go on to further education - I knew that was what I had to do to improve my chances in life. I had supportive parents and teachers to help me on my way but I knew that to get on in life I had to help myself as well. I got my first job when I was 13 and have been lucky enough not to be out of work since. Very few of my early jobs were glamorous - I was a paper girl then a waitress - but I learnt social skills and earnt my own money long before I had any qualifications to my name. I wasn't unusual - all my friends and classmates had part-time and Saturday jobs. It was just what we did to earn the money for driving lessons, nights out and new clothes. It is tougher to find a job now than it was in 2001 but there are still hundreds of migrant workers doing the jobs that British people won't do. There's a large Polish community in the town I come from many of whom have university level qualifications but are doing relatively menial jobs because they'd rather work than be unemployed. I get the overwhelming sense that for a considerable section of British society they'd rather be unemployed/on benefits than do a job which is more menial.
So what are the answers? Well, I don't have any. My instinctive argument is in favour of a small state and a balanced budget but dogma is no use here. People make a country not politicians - surely the very essence of any kind of big society - and if the policiticians of this country continue to fail her people then things will only get worse. Austerity protects our economy in some ways, preventing massive interest rises on government borrowing and shielding us from some market forces but it makes growth more difficult especially in a time of continued global financial turmoil. If the Eurozone is falling apart and America has its credit rating lowered how can we possibly expect our economy to grow at anything like the pace required? This isn't the government's fault particularly - as a country recovering slowly from recession and with a big burden of debt there's only so much that can be done to improve matters. A fiscal stimulus like a VAT cut may well increase consumer confidence but then again it may not and runs the risk of market disapprobation.
Meanwhile what do we do about social problems? How can we teach kids to aspire to something more than a life on benefits when it's all they and their parents have ever known? How do we encourage children to get an education in order to get a great job when the costs associated with gaining a degree are spiralling and the job market is so challenging? I was lucky - my family all had jobs and my parents encouraged me to try and earn some money of my own. It was just obvious to me that I would have to work for a living and if I worked really hard then one day I would be lucky enough to do a job I really enjoyed. I wholeheartedly believe in a meritocracy but I can see how soul-destroying it must be not to have that vision, not to believe in your own ability to get on in life. To see things getting more expensive and politicians talking about tightening your belts when you and your family couldn't afford the things you needed or wanted even when the UK economy was booming. Perhaps that's why people jumped on the bandwagon of the riots. It's not an apology or an excuse but it's a reason.
So I ask again, how do we solve this? We could ask our politicians to stop becoming entrenched in the dogma that didn't win an election and work together to look at how we can be fiscally responsible and encourage growth. It's not an easy circle to square but surely if MPs stop arguing with one another and start thinking constructively they might just be able to do something productive on our behalf. At the same time we need to look at what we can do with resources other than money to encourage aspiration. If 13 years of a Labour government throwing money at every public service it could think of should have taught us anything it is that social problems can't be solved with investment alone. We need to encourage people to work together within and across communities to help kids realise that they can do anything they want - the only limit is their aspirations. We need to help people who got involved in violence over the past three days put it behind them and use this experience as a catalyst to do something useful.What this situations doesn't need is kneejerk reactions like reducing civil liberties or removing benefit. Yes the actions of those rioting, looting and in some cases killing and injuring people are deplorable but some of the reactions I've seen in the media and on twitter/facebook have been equally so - you don't solve a crisis by suggesting mass murder, you just don't. People convicted over this should feel the full force of the law, no-one should be disputing that, but it is just as important that they receive compassion, help and support to help them realise that there is more to life than a free flatscreen TV and that this country does have more to offer them than violence and poverty.