A remarkable amount of rubbish has been spoken and written about Britain’s riots.
Start with Prime Minister David Cameron. “These riots were not about poverty,” he said this week. “That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.”
The beleaguered prime minister might wish poverty was not a factor, but he can’t possibly know it wasn’t.
In fact, The Guardian, in a fine piece of journalism, gathered the addresses of 1,100 people charged in the riots and plotted them against a map showing neighbourhoods’ official measures of “multiple deprivation.”
The majority of areas where suspects lived were deprived, and two-thirds of them had got poorer between 2007 and 2010. More than 40 per cent of the suspects lived in the bottom 10 per cent of communities on the deprivation index.
That does not justify rioting or theft or any other crime. But it does suggest it is stupid, if the goal is understanding and prevention, to pretend poverty, joblessness and deprivation are not factors.
Then move on to consider the moral outrage of politicians of all stripes, who spoke as if the rioters were aliens who had emerged, to everyone’s shock, on British streets.
Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph, a staunchly conservative newspaper, laid that to rest brilliantly.
There was something “very phony and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in Parliament,” he wrote. “MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them.”
“I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society,” he wrote. “The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.”
Sir Richard Branson, he wrote, was considering moving his Virgin operations to Switzerland to avoid taxes. A report said that might be a blow to the Chancellor of the Exchequer — the finance minister — because it would mean less government revenue.
“In a sane and decent world such a move would be a blow to Sir Richard, not the Chancellor,” Oborne wrote. “People would note that a prominent and wealthy businessman was avoiding British tax and think less of him. Instead, he has a knighthood and is widely feted.” People who have become rich in part because of the structures of British society — schools, roads, police — no longer wish to pay their share.
MPs stood in Parliament to deplore the looters’ theft of TVs and designer clothes, Oborne wrote. But the same politicians greedily grabbed whatever they could under their lax expense provisions until they were exposed. Can a Labour MP who made taxpayers pay for a $14,000 Bang & Olufsen television really claim to be much different from a looter lugging a flat-screen TV out of a shop?
“The prime minister showed no sign that he understood that something stank about yesterday’s Commons debate,” Oborne wrote. “He spoke of morality, but only as something which applies to the very poor ... He appeared not to grasp that this should apply to the rich and powerful as well.”
I visited England four years ago, for the first time in years.
The greatest shock was the drunken louts, obnoxious and threatening. They weren’t all young, and it wasn’t a matter of being in the bar zone at night. They were in Exeter, a quiet university town, at night, and on trains at midday. They seemed a symptom of a decaying society.
As do the riots.
I don’t want to add to the rubbish. But any society that restricts upward mobility, cuts supports to those on the bottom who have become dependent on them over generations and not only accepts a perpetually uneducated, unemployed underclass, but tolerates lawless acts by some of its members, is going to face big problems.
If it increasingly celebrates the gap between the rich and the rest — winners and losers under the system set up by the winners — those problems will be more dramatic.
And no amount of politicians’ pronouncements, policing or moralizing are going to change the reality.
Canada is, of course, much different. But we should, perhaps, think about just how much different.