There have been many thoughtful attempts to understand recent riots in England, by commentators with varying backgrounds and political views. Factors identified range from poverty and childhood abuse and neglect to consumerism and erosion of moral values from the top down.
But other commentators have come up with explanations that are less than enlightening, including ResPublica thinktank head and theologian Phillip Blond. This demonstrates how easy it is for even the well-intentioned to embrace ideological positions not grounded in historical reality.
In recent years, Blond has become influential in political and church circles. A ‘Red Tory’ who embraces ‘compassionate conservatism’, he was a member of David Cameron’s inner circle and a key architect of the Big Society concept. In an interview with Italian journalist Pietro Vernizzi on Ilsussidiario.net, Blond gave his take on the riots.
“What we have seen in these riots is not the product of this government. I do not see how any reasonable person can say that,” he insisted. “I think that the riots have nothing whatever to do with the cuts.”
Many will remain sceptical. The trouble initially broke out in Tottenham (where Mark Duggan, the young man shot dead by police, grew up on the Broadwater Farm Estate), then Hackney, and spread to other areas. West Green electoral ward in the borough of Haringey, which contains this housing estate, is among the most deprived areas in England, with high rates of poverty and unemployment. So is Hackney Central, the ward containing the Pembury Estate, near which much of the conflict took place. Even those in paid work are often on low wages. Life expectancy for men in 2003-7 was 74.6 in West Green, 72.8 in Hackney Central, compared with 86.0 in Surrey Docks (also in London).
To quote a 2009 report from the Department for Work and Pensions (hardly a bastion of radicalism) on Living with poverty: A review of the literature on children’s and families’ experiences of poverty, “Poverty permeates every facet of children’s lives from economic and material disadvantages, through social and relational constraints and exclusions, to the personal and more hidden aspects of poverty associated with shame, sadness and the fear of difference and stigma.”
Youth services in both boroughs had recently been reduced, heightening tensions. In mid-June 2011, Parliament’s Education Select Committee warned that “there have already been very significant, disproportionate cuts to local authority youth services – a situation which the Minister acknowledged – ranging from 20 per cent to 100 per cent. In this context we comment that the Government's lack of urgency in articulating a youth policy or strategic vision is regrettable”.
A Guardian newspaper article in late July 2011 quoted a youth in Haringey, where the youth services budget was slashed by 75 per cent after heavy cuts by central government to the Council's overall funding: "I used to go to youth clubs but now there's nothing to do. We're just out here, getting up to no good." Another warned that there would be a riot.
"The youth club was just a place we could all go and have fun, at least we had somewhere to go. Now we walk down the streets, we get pulled over by police,” the first youth also explained. Over-use of stop and search was the flashpoint in Hackney, and contributed to tensions between police and young people elsewhere.
“Nothing has been more damaging to the relationship between the police and the black community than the ill-judged use of stop and search powers. For young black men in particular, the humiliating experience of being repeatedly stopped and searched is a sad fact of life, in some parts of London at least. It is hardly surprising that those on the receiving end of this treatment should develop hostile attitudes towards the police,” warned Ben Bowling and Coretta Phillips in the Modern Law Review in 2007. Many have continued to draw attention to this issue.
Yet in Blond’s parallel universe, the cuts were not a factor, and the children and youth in these communities are not too deprived but rather too cosseted, experiencing a sense of entitlement.
He said, “I believe the cause of the riots is essentially liberalism in the form of libertarianism, both left libertarianism and right libertarianism. The left libertarianism came first and essentially denounced human relationships. It broke up the extended family, repudiated the nuclear family and separated children from parents such that the state became the main guardian of people rather than people. As a result, it created a whole class that was based on one-way entitlement rights rather than mutual rights and responsibilities.”
This “led to a form of libertarianism on the right that produced a form of neo-liberalism that only helped those at the top of society and, increasingly, ordinary wage earners and ordinary working people were squeezed out of prosperity, wealth and advance... Once we cut off the paths to ownership and opportunity, what we’ve actually done is we’ve created a world where the free market produces monopoly and oligopoly.”
Far from recognising the impact of continually stopping and searching youth in certain communities, he claimed that “We have been policing only to the middle class. We have abandoned poor areas, and we need policing for the poor, allied with structures and institutions that can provide people with a pathway out of where they are.”
He appeared to identify the presence of non-white people, combined with respect for cultural diversity, as part of the problem: “multiculturalism was what led to separate development and the idea that communities could be apart from society and doing their own things. The current situation is the consequence of letting them do their own thing. We have a very nice and charming community of thieves, robbers and violent muggers developing separately from us.”
“Regarding immigrants,” said Blond, “I think that liberalism and multiculturalism have denied us access to our own history. British identity has never been racial, has never been about blood and it has never been ethnic. It has always been civil. In a way, Britain is the European inheritor of Rome for exactly that reason and that is why we have such a good record in terms of race. We had the highest degrees of integration, but multiculturalism aborted that.”
When the interviewer asked, “In Italy, there are a lot of social groups connected to the Catholic Church. Could the lack of these groups in England be one of the causes of the riots?” he responded, “Yes, I think that when you lose intermediate groups, you lose communities and relationships and that leads to a fragmented society and a very strong centralised state. I think it is imperative that the Church moves into the foreground and starts to create the type of Catholic associations that Italy has done so well with.”
With a tug at the loose ends, his analysis begins to unravel. To begin with, Italy has had its share of recent riots. For instance there was rioting at the beginning of last year sparked off by racism against migrants, which included clashes with police and beatings and shooting by local residents, then towards the end of 2010 after the controversial Prime Minister survived a no-confidence vote.
As for his apparent view that ethnic minorities tend to behave barbarically unless assimilated into ‘mainstream’ British behaviour, among the most depressing images amidst the riots were scenes of looting in which young people, both white and black, appeared to have bought into the dominant consumer culture. In contrast, grieving father Tariq Jahan, a devout Muslim sustained in part by his faith when his son Haroon was killed while trying to protect local businesses, impressed millions by his dignity as he helped to defuse the risk of further violence.
This is not to say that there is not a debate to be had about how best to build harmony among ethnic and religious communities and counter prejudice and discrimination. But thieves, robbers and violent muggers are not a new phenomenon. For instance, the England satirised by John Gay in the Beggars Opera in 1728 was hardly a model of respectability.
Blond’s claim that modern society “separated children from parents such that the state became the main guardian of people” is also tragically at odds with the experience in Tottenham, home to Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter, who died after prolonged mistreatment. Even in cases of abuse, social services departments will usually try to keep children with their parents, though ultimately the best interests of the child should be the priority; and sometimes the authorities are too slow to act.
But Blond is led astray by nostalgia for a Britain that never existed. Setting aside his claim that ‘left libertarianism’ is hostile to human relationships, how could it have broken up the extended family in the west? Historians used to think that this break-up resulted from industrialisation, which took place long before the ‘swinging sixties’, but others have argued that, in much of north-west Europe, the nuclear family was common even in pre-industrial times.
In any case, countries such as India, where the extended family is still strong, have their share of riots.
The harsh conditions faced by many “ordinary working people” throughout much of England’s history are well documented. Though neo-liberalism has much to answer for, it is clearly not the case that they consistently enjoyed “prosperity, wealth and advance” until its onset.
Likewise, the tendency to monopoly is intrinsic to capitalism, not some new development, though government social and economic policies can hinder or promote this. For instance, after a public outcry in the USA about price-fixing by monopolies, the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed in 1890.
The immediate triggers and underlying factors which lead to rioting and looting vary, as do the motives of the individuals involved. Careful attention to the experience of those in affected communities, and the work of social scientists, historians and others examining the evidence, can help throw light on the causes and identify constructive responses. This does not mean absolving people for responsibility for their actions, but rather seeing these in context and looking to the future.
It is unfortunate that Phillip Blond, a genuinely creative thinker with a concern for the disadvantaged, has responded in a way that is more puzzling than enlightening. Being interviewed is not always the best format for presenting views, but he is highly articulate and experienced in dealing with the media.
Strengthening human relationships and sense of belonging may indeed help. But to achieve this, it is useful to acknowledge the impact of imbalances of power and status at all levels, from the street and neighbourhood to the highest reaches of government and big business.
Churches, other faith groups, voluntary organisations and projects can, and often do, play an important role not only in caring for those immediately affected but also in offering alternative ways in which those who might otherwise be drawn to theft and fighting can channel their energies. Such groups and networks can perhaps do more to address the way society is run, who benefits and how it can be improved.
© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on social and religious affairs and an Ekklesia associate. She works in the equalities and care sector, and has lived and worked in areas directly affected by the recent disturbances.