Today parliament has reconvened to discuss and debate the recent public disturbances which, if the media were to be believed, have swept across Britain in recent days.
I am happy to join with MPs of all parties in condemning the criminality that has resulted in widespread destruction, looting, hundreds of people being made homeless and, tragically, some being killed. The “riots” that have been the focus of such intense media interest should be seen for what they are – a human tragedy, and a completely unnecessary one at that.
Being the kind of person I am, I have tried to make sense of what has gone on; to understand and comprehend the rationale behind what on the face of it is mindless and gratuitous violence. For all my years of experience working in mental health services, I must admit to being unable to identify any social, economic or cultural factors behind the disturbances. That does not mean that such factors are not at least partially responsible for the rioting we have seen, but they are not the principal influences. For all the attempts of certain figures within the Labour Party to equate the rioting with justified protest against coalition policy, that logic simply doesn’t hold true. In fact, not only is it seriously flawed, it’s also negligent and irresponsible.
If we can cast our minds back a few days we might remember that disorder reared its head following a protest over the killing of a young man, Mark Duggan, on Thursday. The protest itself passed off reasonably peacefully, but appears to have been hijacked by some determined to use the opportunity to attack the police. Criminality spread, not only across London but later to Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester and other urban areas, with buildings being burned, shops looted and, sadly, some people being killed. I can safely say that the majority of the “rioters” were completely ignorant of Mark Duggan’s death and had little in the way of political motivation other than taking advantage of an opportunity to pillage, loot and embark on a spree of destruction.
To suggest that the “riots” are in some way either politically motivated or stem from government policy is, at best, a misconception. Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman have, shamefully, sought to make political capital from the situation. On one level we should not be surprised that such tribalists can not resist the temptation to score cheap points. However, on another, we should be appalled that senior figures can stoop so low as to peddle a myth that has the potential to create further social division.
Harman, speaking on Tuesday’s Newsnight, suggested that the public disturbances were a manifestation of public anger against “the trebling of tuition fees...young people feel[ing] they are not being listened to...jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising.” Essentially, she sought to link the violence with tuition fees, EMA and job centres. I will not argue that social deprivation does not create the conditions in which people can turn to violence. However, it is both wrong and irresponsible of Harman to connect the criminality on the streets of some English cities to current government policy, however unsatisfactory that policy. Fortunately Ed Miliband appears to realise this and has urged his MPs not to attempt to make mileage from the violence, insisting that Labour should “not engage in simplistic explanations”. The New Statesman makes a similar point, observing that “The riots were not, as some have claimed, an uprising or insurrection against the coalition’s spending cuts. Many of the cuts deemed responsible for the violence have not even taken effect. This is not to say that the cuts will not make matters worse [but] placing an undue and politically convenient emphasis on their role risks masking the social and economic deformities that lie beneath the violence."
Fortunately, it seems that Harman and Livingstone are isolated within the Labour Party, at least so far as their tactics are concerned. The majority of Labour MPs are determined to forge a cross-party approach to tackling the unrest and its root causes. My personal viewpoint isn’t simply that Harman’s opportunism was wrong, but that her determination to take advantage of human suffering and the effects of criminality for political ends is as morally abhorrent as those who have taken advantage of the situation to loot and steal.
I found it interesting that the unrest occurred in places where there was historical precedent. The Tottenham riots began in the Broadwater farm area, where there had been riots in 1985 resulting in the killing of PC Keith Blakelock. As trouble spread, it inevitably moved into areas such as Brixton - the scene of anti-police riots in 1981. Disturbances broke out in other English cities but again these were largely in areas where there might be seen to be a historic predisposition to rioting, such as Toxteth in Liverpool (the scene of disorder in 1981 and 1985) and St Ann’s in Nottingham, where race riots occurred in 1958. Unrest in Manchester seems to have been orchestrated by organised criminal gangs - but lest we forget Moss Side was also the scene of racial riots in 1981.
I am not suggesting that history necessarily repeats itself, or that a predisposition to rioting is geographical. It is not. But there are reasons why parts of British society were so willing to become violent and destructive towards the communities they were part of. These areas not only have a history of public disturbance, but a history of social deprivation where there is a lack of social cohesion, little sense of community and even less in the way of opportunity. There are reasons why rioting took place in Toxteth, St Ann's and Brixton, as opposed to Tunbridge Wells, St Alban's and Barnstaple.
That is not to say that the rioting we have seen in recent days was purely an expression of social deprivation, because it hasn’t been. Not only has this not constituted a political protest – it isn’t even a protest in the way that the aforementioned disturbances were. I have no truck with those within the media who are attempting to suggest that racial or religious differences were in some way responsible for the outbreak of violence in London: like Harman’s uninformed intervention, such an analysis is not only wrong but socially irresponsible. Racialising the disturbances is unhelpful and an insult to the community work and political action that has resulted in improved relations between religious communities.
Obviously, the immediate concern is to deal with crime and its consequences. Those who are found to be responsible for indulging in the mindless and unnecessary brutality we have witnessed in recent days must be brought to justice and given appropriate sentences. While it is important to understand the various factors that either led to the riots or created the conditions in which they took place, understanding is not justification. Thuggish criminality deserves to be punished, especially when it leads to homelessness and death. There can be no excuse for such behaviour, but that does not necessarily imply there can be no reasons for it.
Prime Minister David Cameron today responded to a question from Caroline Lucas MP by insisting that [indiscriminate crime] “is not about inequality”. It’s tempting to believe that, but it’s not quite true. Inequality does not excuse criminal behaviour. But it is not accidental that areas which have known little other than social deprivation and hopelessness for generations breed dissatisfied elements lacking in respect for authority or the wider community. That does not mean that poverty excuses a lack of values, but it does show that successive governments have failed to rise to the challenge of tackling the complex problems linking crime and deprivation – as Tony Blair described it, being “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
I’m not going to lay the inequality commentary on too thick because social inequality is, at best, only an indirect influence behind the disturbances. There were also many areas of the UK that have experienced poverty, marginalisation and deprivation but whose communities did not indulge in wanton destruction. It is also true that within the very communities affected by the recent violence many local people organised themselves to oppose it and to assist with cleaning up their streets – evidence indeed that even within these areas the vast majority of people have strong moral principles and a real community ethic.
The government must do what it can to understand the various factors leading to this shocking, unnecessary and mindless outburst of violence. It must examine new solutions to deal with potential future unrest and the root causes of the most recent rioting. In doing so, it should examine more effective policing methods – not least in how to ensure the police are able to more easily connect with communities. Changes to sentencing should perhaps also be considered, especially in relation to premeditated crime organised via social media. But there can be no escaping that social factors must also be considered, and overdue remedies prescribed. It should also enter government thinking that, while the rioting was not a direct protest at government policy, there may be some respects in which current policy will not alleviate the problems of social incohesion and perhaps revisiting some of the detail could be considered.
Finally, I would like to comment on Alex Salmond’s disappointing intervention yesterday on the matter. If it was inexcusable for Harriet Harman to seek to make capital from human suffering, it was even more difficult to justify the First Minister using the situation to further his nationalist arguments. Without expressing any empathy with the victims of the violence, Mr Salmond’s concern seemed to be only with the media’s use of the word “British”. Speaking on BBC Scotland he said: "We know we have a different society in Scotland, and one of my frustrations was to see this being described on BBC television and Sky as riots in the UK. Well, until such time as we do have a riot in Scotland, then we've seen riots in London and across English cities. It's actually unhelpful to see them inaccurately presented, because one of the dangers we face in Scotland is copycat action." Another SNP MSP Joan McAlpine used twitter to explain that “the riots are NOT in UK or Britain. They are in England” and "it's an English problem."
How does anyone respond to that? Well, on one very basic level they are of course right. There have been no outbreaks of violence in Scotland related to that in London, although several Sunderland supporters were violently attacked in Edinburgh on Saturday and there is evidence that some individuals were attempting to orchestrate copycat riots. But they are in fact missing the point. This is not a reason for complacency or to attempt to turn what is a complex social problem into a national one. It’s also not true to describe it as “an English problem”: it is, in fact, a human problem that has taken hold in a few small areas of a few English cities. It’s not often that I quote from Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, but he is right when he maintains that “there are few Scots who don't have relatives or friends in the places affected south of the border. Alex Salmond does not seem to recognise that there are many parts of England that are luckily untouched by riots, like Scotland, and that an argument about their geography helps no one.”
That Alex Salmond and Joan McAlpine – both people I respect enormously – have used the situation in other parts of the UK to shamelessly further their arguments for independence is more than disappointing. On one point I naturally agree with them – Scottish society is fundamentally different, but that is no excuse for complacency: I can not, for example, imagine that there is a need in England to legislate to ban sectarian prejudice at football grounds. Scotland has its own (sometimes unique) problems and, as Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie makes clear, “Scotland is not free from social tensions and community disorder, and instead of gloating about riots in another part of the UK, the first minister's efforts would be better spent addressing those deep-rooted issues here.”
The disorder we have witnessed on out TV screens in recent days requires a responsible response from our elected representatives, not party political point scoring. In this respect, we have seen Nick Clegg, David Cameron and to some degree Ed Miliband emerge with credit whereas others – who have surrendered their capacity to part of the solution – have simply reinforced their reputations as party tribalists.