Youth Riots: Fiddling After Burning – Assessing the Riot Commissions Final Report

So, what caused the riots? According to the Riot Commission’s final report, there are many causes. Read the report however and it becomes evident that some are considered more significant than others. Unsurprisingly perhaps, those that receive most attention are those that resonate most clearly with governmental thinking – which means that whatever was to blame it was not going to be the government or its policies.

While the report makes passing reference to ‘irresponsible capitalism’ and the dangers of the advertising industry what the report makes clear is that real ‘causes’ are to be found in problematic families, under performing schools and communities that lack ‘cohesion’. These are to blame because collectively they have failed to produce appropriately ‘resilient’ children. By ‘resilient’ the report’s authors appear to mean happy submissive proletarians: poor kids who accept their marginalisation with a smile, who will actively seek out and take whatever low paid work is available; and who know better than to get involved in riots.

Solutions? ‘Forgotten’ families need to be discovered and turned around. There are half a million of them apparently and these have given birth to the 14,000 kids that then went on to riot. 1 Statutory services need to work pre-emptively with them so latent tendencies to riot among their young are identified and rectified before they go off the tracks and join gangs that then riot. In what amounts to an exercise in Big Society thinking the community also needs to be involved here and ‘community mothers’ mentoring problem families is touted as one solution. Schools will also have to improve and the report advances the progressive idea that they should be ‘fined’ if they fail to raise kids that can’t read. They also have to work harder to instil the right employability skills and what the report terms ‘character’; and that just about does it for the worst outbreak in urban disorder this country has witnessed in 30 years.

All right, this was never going to be a rerun of Scarman. The time when the state would initiate a serious investigation into social problems like riots disappeared long ago, The state today no longer has the will to engage in such endeavours – or indeed the capacity to do so. The last thing our governing elite needs is a report that just might reveal uncomfortable truths about the way in which British society is organised. All of this helps explain why this ‘research’ was delegated to a panel of faceless bureaucrats; it also helps explain the banality of their findings.

If the report lacks integrity, its ideological function is nevertheless clear. Peel away the veneer of ‘compassionate conservatism’ that frames it and what we find lurking beneath is simply another exercise in underclass thinking. In common with underclass thinking more generally what we have here is an explanation that attaches blame to everything but the real culprits. Thus problem families, non-cohesive communities, failing schools and young people who lack ‘resilience’ are fingered as the problem. They do not possess the right skills, They lack ‘character’. Ultimately this is a missionary discourse predicated on the assumption that the savages need to be tamed because they simply cannot tame themselves.

The wider ‘good’ society and its right thinking people are of necessity exonerated in this exercise in neutralisation. The riots are, as such, nothing to do with them. The fact that we are living in a society which is happy to consign its poorest young citizens to conditions of bare life in an ever more precarious, low wage flexible labour market – well let’s not make a fuss about that. Which is also why the deeper causes of unemployment among young people in areas subject to near permanent recession are not investigated; which is also why the report simply cannot recognise the utterly destructive impact of neo liberal policies on poor communities as a factor worthy of investigation at all. No, the key problem of our time lies in an absence of ‘character’ among the underclass and the failure of schools to instil it.

So let’s make the issue one about defective families, communities and schools. And why not! They make for a convenient scapegoat. It’s a convenient fantasy to maintain in the context of a society that lost sight of the reality principle long ago. It keeps the Daily Mail fraternity happy and the ‘solutions’ offered maintain the illusion that awful things can be mended by a bit of tinkering here and there.

Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned. Here London has burned and the government fiddles.

1 I have trouble with the arithmetic here. Assuming each rioter came from one family this suggests that of the 500,000 problem families identified, 486,000 did not produce rioting offspring. Does that mean they were ‘resilient’? If so why do they need intervention?

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Simon Hallsworth

Simon Hallsworth

Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, London Metropolitan University

Simon Hallsworth is a Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, London Metropolitan University. He is also the Director of the CSER and holds the Chair in Social Research in the Department of Applied Social Science.

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