Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Price of Ignoring the Vulnerable

The images of burning buildings, youths hurling improvised missiles and riot clad police officers attempting to restore order could have come from any number of Middle East countries a few months ago. But this is London, today. Facing the worst urban violence Britain has seen since Brixton 30 years ago, the UK government seems unable or unwilling to fully comprehend what it is confronting. Just as the uprisings in the Middle East have their origins in systemic problems in society there can be no doubt that there are root causes in the UK providing the backdrop for this wave of lawlessness.

Prime Minister David Cameron needs to understand these root causes if he is to arrive at a long-term solution. It is simply superficial and incorrect to describe the violence, as did Mr Cameron, as “criminality, pure and simple” and to argue “it has to be confronted and defeated”. For Home Secretary Theresa May it was mere “thuggery”.

These may make for good sound bites created by government speech writers; and they may show a robust determination to stand up to the perpetrators of violence that will resonate with specific audiences. Such comments, though, will not move England toward an enduring solution to its present problem.

Bermudians will know that our riots in 1977 were not “criminality, pure and simple” nor was it thuggery. Rather, as Lord Pitt of Hampstead concluded in his Royal Commission report on these riots Bermuda was beset with some deep rooted problems that gave rise to the lawlessness precipitated by the executions of Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn. Similarly, Lord Scarman in his report on the Brixton riots in 1981 noted systemic challenges between the police and black youth. Both reports precipitated a number of changes, which while not sorting out all of the challenges identified, made some headway in ameliorating the social problems identified as the root cause.

Against a backdrop of a global recession Tottenham is one of London’s poorest boroughs, with more than 10,000 people on unemployment benefits. Similar challenges, mainly for younger people, prevail in other affected areas. We speak of disaffected youth in Bermuda; in the UK there is increasing talk of a lost generation.

While the government tightens its belt and people feel the pinch, the gap between rich and poor escalates dramatically: in 2010, the combined wealth of the 1,000 wealthiest Britons increased by 30 percent to £333 billion. Alongside this, our consumerist society reinforced by the advertising industry and popular culture contributes toward a definition of self-worth which equates value with material possessions. And so, those who do not have will take it when the opportunity presents itself. 

Politically, the UK government has grown rapidly out of touch with its most vulnerable underclass. Its raft of cost cutting measures has affected this sector deeply and this too must be a contributing cause. It seems sometimes that politicians sitting in closed rooms making national decisions have little appreciation of the consequences for ordinary people. This lack of appreciation almost always comes at a price.

These factors must be at play in any careful consideration of the anarchy visited upon the people in London. Tottenham has paid a high price for this and the many innocent victims have had their lives irrevocably and negatively transformed. Writing in The Telegraph, Mary Riddell makes an insightful point when she writes that “the capital city of an advanced nation has reverted to a Hobbesian dystopia of chaos and brutality”. To end this requires both insight and understanding.

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