Left and right should avoid knee-jerk reactions to the riots

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Left and right should avoid knee-jerk reactions to the riots

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Politicians from both sides need to visit affected communities and talk to local people if they want to stop this happening again

Cleaning up the physical mess of the horrendous riots of last week may take months. Clearing up the mess caused by broken trust and shattered societal bonds in already deprived communities will take far longer. In so many ways, the violence will have horrendous consequences for all involved.

Politicians and thinkers have been quick to offer their reaction to the violence and the reasons behind it. Knees have been jerking on both sides of the political spectrum. In many cases, the gut reaction of both left and right is wide of the mark. People need to go beyond posturing and rhetoric and consider ways to ensure that this will never happen again.

Many on the left have underestimated the importance of strong families

Some on the left, such as Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman, were quick to blame the government’s cuts. Whatever you think of the government’s deficit reduction agenda, it would take some argument to suggest that a culture of alienation and nihilism has sprung up in just over twelve months. The social issues that have provided a fertile territory for this violence have developed over decades—blaming the government’s cuts programme is using the riots for short-term political gain.

Some elements on the left have also been guilty of not accepting the importance of the family in providing guidance to their kids. All too often, the left has forgotten about the importance of strong families and (where possible) father figures in providing authority and stability. This needn’t be about neo-Victorian moralising, but the left does need to acknowledge the importance of families and fathers and acknowledge the issue of fatherless households in many deprived areas. In Tottenham, for example, up to 80 per cent of households are fatherless—surely nobody, either on the left or right can suggest that is anything other than a bad thing. Many on the left also need to consider whether they have placed sufficient attention on creating social norms or placing responsibilities alongside rights.

Politicians should beware of knee-jerk reactions and excessive language

If the left has made mistaken assumptions following the riots, then some commentators on the right have made mistakes of the same gravity.  Phrases such as “feral scum” have been used to describe not just the individuals involved, but, in many cases, entire communities. That is wrong and insulting. Such language shows that too many politicians and journalists haven’t got the faintest idea of what life is like in poorer areas.

The right has also been quick to call for a crackdown, with the refrain that “something must be done.” Some were calling for plastic bullets and water cannons last week. Yet such brutal and inflexible methods items could, in the long-term, poison community-police relations. Some other suggested responses to the riots, such as the eviction of some tenants from council-owned properties (to where?) also need greater consideration.

Knee-jerk responses in policing and legislation are very rarely effective. We need a reasoned, evidence-based response to help ensure that such a catastrophe doesn’t happen again.

The right has underestimated the importance of strong communities

Others on the right have been quick to blame the welfare state. I’m far from convinced. Many seem to be trying to use the situation to suit their particular argument. But there were riots and looting long before the welfare state existed. The fact that a reasonable safety net from extreme poverty has existed since the early 20th century has meant that civic disorder has been unusual. Of course, there is a need for welfare reform and there is a need for greater reciprocity and responsibility in the system. But that is a separate argument. Blaming the welfare state for people being willing to destroy their own community tars whole communities with the mistakes of a minority.

The right has also consistently failed to develop a coherent approach to poverty and alienation in deprived communities. All too often, the right has been willing to adopt a homo-economicus view of society, with too little emphasis on society or community bonds. It has been unwilling to consider the effect of poverty and economic change on these societal bonds, or how the acceptance of mass unemployment, dislocation and a culture of Hayek’s “movement for movement’s sake” has affected those bonds.

Tackling alienation should be a priority

Politicians need to consider how a sense of alienation and detachment from community has developed in parts of modern Britain. Where is the sense of community and belonging?And politicians cannot find these answers in the pages of social science textbooks. These answers can only be found by politicians and decision-makers visiting the affected communities, listening to local people and taking action to address alienation and make sure that this kind of thing cannot happen again.

After the Toxteth riots, Michael Heseltine left Whitehall for a number of weeks to visit the areas concerned. He made clear that the rioting could never be justified but wanted to find out why it had happened and realised that he couldn’t do this from a minister’s office in Westminster. He spoke to local people and looked to consider the root causes of the violence. The result was a white paper, called “It Took A Riot,” a thoughtful document with solutions to the social causes of the riots. Hopefully today’s politicians will respond to the violence in an equally intelligent and measured way.

David Skelton is Deputy Director and Head of Research at Policy Exchange, an independent think tank. David can be followed on Twitter @djskelton

  1. August 17, 2011


    A most thought-provoking article David.

    However, I’m not sure that many on the centre right would blame the existence of the Welfare State per se for the culture of alienation. Rather, they would probably cite as one of the factors the conscious decision by successive governments to park hundreds of thousands of people who are able to work on Incapacity Benefit, creating a generation or more of people who have not worked for a living and have no real stake in society.

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David Skelton is Deputy Director and Head of Research at Policy Exchange 

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