Cameron’s “tough love” is neither tough nor loving

In a post-riots reprise of his earlier injunction that we should all “hug a hoodie”, the Prime Minister now styles himself as the dispenser of “tough love”. Along with Michael “whack’em in Latin” Gove, Theresa “shoe fetishist” May, and Iain “poor law revisited” Duncan Smith, the big guns of the cabinet are going to let them eat cake. Well brioche in fact, I don’t doubt.

At least, that would probably be a more honest assessment of the government’s social policies. The PM waxes eloquent about there being a “shortage of not just respect and boundaries but also love”, requiring on the one hand the “need, when they cross the line and break the law, to be very tough”, whilst on the other, well, that hand seemed rather empty. Michael Gove is rushing around trying to make all schools like the way he remembers his own school days, which seem to be straight out of Jennings. His “free schools” – which certainly aren’t free since we’re all paying for them – are much more prominently engaged in acting as an escape valve for middle class parents who want to opt out of the state system but don’t want the inconvenience of paying fees than they are as ladders out of the quagmire that the “120,000 most troubled families”, who according to Mr Cameron were largely responsible for the rioting and looting, have apparently allowed their children to wallow in. Iain Duncan Smith (I can never quite decide if he’s hopelessly muddled but decent, or just plain vindictive) is busy embarking on a set of reforms to the benefits system that will have much more deleterious consequences for these very families than for just about any other section of the populace. And Theresa May is more interested in exemplary punishment than she is in almost anything else, apart from shoes, obviously.

The government is not being tough, at least, not with the right people. Bankers will now be allowed to continue to put us all at risk for longer, as notwithstanding the Business Secretary’s protestations, a hasty retreat is beaten in the face of their remarkable cheek in suggesting that unless they’re allowed to continue gambling the economy won’t grow, and everything will go pear-shaped. Just a little reminder that everything is already pear-shaped largely because we’ve had to make up a lot of fantasy money to repay the fantasy debts that you lot landed us with in the first place.

And the government’s not being loving because in almost every area of policy the very support mechanisms that might embody that love are being dismantled, sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. For sure, many of those being prosecuted as a result of the riots are guilty of rank opportunism. But many more are guilty of incoherent, misdirected “rage at the machine”, born out of a hopelessness and an inadequacy that has been visited upon them, not chosen by them. Our children need bread: the government is content to let them eat cake.

Facebook “inciters” didn’t so much get a sentence as a whole bloody paragraph

So two independent Facebook users (i.e. there was no conspiracy between them) have been handed down 4-year gaol terms for inciting others to riot. They weren’t very successful: they proposed a meeting place and a time, but no-one turned up. Four years is within spitting distance of the minimum term for rape. Both defendants also pleaded guilty, so presumably these prison terms had already been discounted, and would otherwise have been even higher. If they weren’t discounted, one might reasonably enquire why not, since this is the usual procedure.

Let’s repeat that salient fact: they pleaded guilty. They have recognised that they committed an offence, and I am not suggesting otherwise. My complaint is not with the prosecuting authorities for bringing the cases to court. My complaint is about the severity of the sentences. I’m happy to bet that they’ll be reduced on appeal, but that’s hardly the point. Indeed, that would make this initial decision even worse, since even more public money will be needlessly wasted.

There are many reasons for arguing that these cases should have attracted sanctions at the lower end of the sentencing scale, not the higher. Generally, defendants are punished more for what did happen rather than what might have happened. There was, as already noted, no conspiracy between these two defendants, nor between either of them and anyone else. Their Facebook messages were not the result of a plan, but of the foolish desire to be involved in events that were happening in any case. The messages were not even meant entirely seriously: one defendant at least said it began as a joke.

So are there any countervailing reasons why a stiffer than average sentence was indeed appropriate? The aggravating factor seems to be the riots themselves. The defendants diverted police resources at a time when they were already over-stretched, and that’s by no means a trivial aspect of the case. I think that is pretty much the limit of justifiable aggravations.

All the other matters that are being wheeled out as justifying these draconian sentences appear to me to be weak at best, and entirely illegitimate at worst. The public is baying for blood as it were, but it is no business of the judiciary to satisfy such desires. The fact that a social network was used to convey the messages is not in itself any reason for taking a harsher view of this case than a similar one using more traditional means. The infamous “Twitter joke” trial earlier in the year demonstrated just how paranoid the authorities seem to be about social networking. Just because Facebook has many millions of users does not mean that many millions of users will see a given message, or take any notice of it if they so. God knows that I’d be delighted if my tweeting got me even a tiny proportion of Twitter’s many millions to read this blog, but let me assure you, it doesn’t. And most disgraceful of all are the widely reported efforts of politicians to pressurise the judiciary into giving exemplary sentences in the aftermath of the riots, and to throw sentencing guidelines out of the window in the process. We have a separation of powers in this country for good reasons. The judges must brave public opinion and tell the politicians in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. This particular judge seems not to have done so, more’s the pity.

A short, angry post on using the word “feral” in the context of rioting

Feral. From the Latin fera, meaning a wild beast. The media have been having a field day recently, bringing this normally rather recherché word into unusual prominence. We hear about “feral youth”, rioters described as “feral rats”, the “rioting feral underclass”. I could go on and on. Apart from wondering whether or not it might be possible for commentators to think of their own ways of expressing their thoughts, rather than simply copying each other with lazy ease, I think this language reveals something deeper than its casual users realise.

The word feral is one that applies literally only to animals (and plants, but most probably don’t realise that) and to apply it to human beings is to suggest that those people are merely animals, too. By using it we draw a sharp and sneering distinction between us as civilised and them as animals.

We will not move far towards dealing with the very real problems the recent unrest reveals if we think about those who’ve rioted as being sub-human, and on the same level as troublesome cats in Rome, or pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Words frame our thinking, and using this kind of word betrays us.

David Starkey’s wrong, but the “racism” tag doesn’t illuminate why

David Starkey is many things, and I suspect that one of them is attention-seeker. If so, he’s been remarkably successful via his interview on Newsnight yesterday. Ever since, there’s been the usual queue of well-meaning people lining up to castigate him as racist. The problem with this is that it’s a debate finisher, particularly for those on the left. It’s pretty much akin to “paedophile” (and if by that you think I’m saying that black people and paedophiles are equivalent, I suggest you go and cool off in a darkened room) in the sense that once someone is accused of an attribute like that we no longer need to listen to what they are saying. The word alone is enough to signal to us that they are beneath contempt.

But Starkey’s error is less heinous and a lot more straightforward than the epithet of racist suggests. He can now involve himself, as indeed he did in the interview last night, in pseudo-profundity and sham complexity. Starkey as serious historian daring to face the reality of race that others are too scared to do. Codswallop.

His mistake isn’t so much that he’s made a gross generalisation that fails utterly to see that there is no such homogeneous, monolithic thing as “black culture”, although it is that, too. It isn’t even that he’s displayed some sort of blanket hostility towards black people, because he didn’t. It wasn’t that he was talking from complete ignorance (the accusation most repeatedly chucked at him in the interview) although his knowledge is based more, I suspect, on hearsay than on direct experience. And it certainly wasn’t that he had the temerity to suggest that race had some part to play in the week’s events because I certainly believe that it has. No, his mistake is much simpler and more basic. It is the inversion of the direction of causality.

Insofar as David Starkey had a case at all, it was that a certain glorification of material acquisitiveness, and of the acceptable role of criminality as a route to achieving those acquisitions, is expressed in some rap music. (Unfortunately he didn’t say anything as nuanced as even my précis of his argument: he went straight for “black culture” as a shorthand, and one that was bound to be as offensive as it is misguided.) He then went on to suggest, ludicrously in my view, that white young people had signed up to this materialist manifesto along with their black comrades, and as a result had decided to “shop with violence”. The plain suggestion was that if there hadn’t been rap music, gangsta culture, a sort of sublimation of Britishness by an alien blackness, then our young people, black and white, would never have even thought of going on their consumerist rampage. Arse before tit is about the most generous comment one can make.

If there is a materialistic strain in some rap music (and there is) it’s the result of something, not the cause of something. It’s the result of a deeply materialistic mainstream culture holding the almost sacred nature of acquisition in the faces of those that it simultaneously conspires to exclude from the means of satisfying that acquisitiveness. The solutions lie in both unseating the gods of capitalist consumerism, and in opening up legitimate means to sharing in social objectives for all groups in society. I’m prepared to bet that increasing opportunities for gainful employment for black and white youth alike would be a lot more effective than trying to stop “white” young people becoming “black” young people via the dubious means of listening to rap. In fact, almost any real solution would be more effective than a solution born out of David Starkey’s bizarre and unfounded fantasies.

And finally, as “riot week” draws to a close, a note of cautious optimism, and one of contrition

Contrition first, as indeed it should be. As the dramatic and infinitely dispiriting events of the week unfolded day after day, I, like so many others, wanted first and foremost to make sense of it, to impose some kind of intellectual order on the physical disorder, to explore how on earth it had come to this. I reject totally and utterly those who have attacked people like me, concerned to think about causes, as apologists for riot, looting and mayhem. But I freely acknowledge, as I’ve read back over my writing these last few days, that there’s been an absence. The victims. But that absence has been in my blog, more than in my heart. Today I want first to put that right.

BBC Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie was broadcasting from Tottenham this morning. In a moving interview with a young African mother with a 6 month old baby, whose home has been completely destroyed, whose possessions have all gone, whose baby now wears clothes given by charitable citizens and eats food provided by local supermarkets, the terrible human cost of what’s happened was laid bare. Today also we learnt that a fifth man has died directly as a result of the disorder, a 68 yr-old attacked as he tried to put out a fire in Ealing. What a way to end almost 70 years of life. The appalling murder of three Muslim men in Birmingham, mown down wantonly and in cold blood, has rightly sent a shiver of revulsion and dismay through the land. And these are just the most dramatic tip of a much larger iceberg. At one level, it really doesn’t matter a fig what caused the riots, what “sickness” lies at the heart of it all, even what we must now do to try and re-build our shattered society. We must first stand in humble and contrite solidarity with those who’ve suffered so grievously.

And now to the cautious optimism. I have to be honest and say that the emphasis is more on the caution than it is on the optimism. Yesterday’s pointless recall of parliament was frankly as depressing, and a lot more predictable, than the looting and rioting itself. Listening to David Cameron and Theresa May, and no less Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, made me want to reach for the sick bag if not the cyanide pill. Sir Hugh Orde has wonderfully punctured May’s self-important pomp by revealing that the change in police tactics came not from breathless politicians returning at such personal cost from their holidays, but from professional policemen learning with admirable speed from their utterly unexpected and bitter experiences in the previous 48 hours.

So where’s the optimism? For me, it comes from an entirely unexpected source. It comes from right-winger Peter Oborne writing in the equally right-wing Daily Telegraph. When someone from that part of the political spectrum writes with more compassion, more sense, more honesty, and more insight than any politician from anywhere on the left or the right, something has begun to shift. I hope it will be the beginning of something, and not merely the end of a week that’s sent shock waves in all directions. Peter Oborne is right, right, right. The ghastly complacency of the well-off, their utter detachment in both social and moral terms from the poor, and the almost breathtaking hypocrisy of the governing elite, are as culpable as any individual looter helping him or herself to a wide-screen TV that will in any case only display more of the moral and economic decadence of our society. We need to change at the top, and perhaps we need to do that more urgently than we need to punish at the bottom.

In the long term fear can’t stop the riots: but hope just might

As I’ve pondered over what I’ve written here in the last couple of days, and been generally heartened by the many very generous responses to it, I’ve begun to focus more and more on one of the questions I’ve posed. It’s the one from yesterday’s post that asks what we might do about many young people’s frighteningly reckless attitude to their personal futures.

Despite the politicians’ rather forlorn attempts to pretend that the rioting and looting is so serious that it’s somehow “above politics”, everywhere else there’s been the usual sharp divide between analyses from the left and right sides of the spectrum. I’ve tried to plough my own furrow, whilst not of course denying that I am from the left. The danger in so doing is obvious: I’ll piss everyone off, and please no-one. There is, though, one surprising place in which the two narratives coincide – and that’s the sudden popularity of an otherwise rather obscure term, nihilism. It seems we all agree that this word does indeed capture something important about the moment. The explanations for it are as polarised as you’d expect, with the left broadly blaming economics, and the right a lack of social discipline.

Nihilism. “Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life” Wikipedia solemnly tells us, whilst Dictionary.com takes a more overtly political perspective with its talk of “total rejection of established laws and institutions” and “anarchy, terrorism, or other revolutionary activity”. I think Wikipedia must take the laurels here, since nihilism is a philosophical concept first and foremost, not a political one. I am convinced that in this concept lies the key to what’s happening. All the other important matters that I and others have discussed at length are derivatives. But in the rioters’ reckless disregard for themselves and others they display absolutely the “negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life”. Unless we can reverse that mindset, all the talk of consequences, of facing the full might of justice, of tooling up the police, of bemoaning the absence of fathers, of broomstick solidarity, of taking back our streets – all of it is as chaff before the fire.

The nihilism we have witnessed has, it seems to me, two aspects. First there’s a material one. No matter how many individual rioters turn out to be “well-heeled” classroom assistants, the fact remains that poverty, and the lack of faith in its relief, lies at the heart. Poverty, we all know, is relative. And the rioters and looters have overwhelmingly been from inner-city areas of concentrated deprivation. My point here is not to decry inequality as such (although I do decry it) but to point up the consequences when young people lose hope that their circumstances can improve. There are some hard lessons here, I think, for the left as well as the right. We have all colluded in a fantasy that somehow education can lift everyone from their roots within a society where social mobility is constrained only by individual educational achievement. The Labour party has been guilty of this for many years. I was almost treated as a leper by a Labour cabinet member for young people when, as chair of governors of a large London secondary school, I had the temerity to question whether continuous improvement in exam results year on year was either possible, or even effective if the local economy could not offer enough work. Things are much worse economically now than they were then. And many of us in the left, and I definitely include myself here, have clung to the romantic notion that there is almost no such thing as difference in innate ability, and that everyone can be equally clever if only we could work out how to equalise opportunity. It’s not true. We have to create an economy that offers work to everyone, not just the clever ones. We need to stop seeing such work as menial. We need to pay more for it, recognising that it makes an important contribution both to those who thus earn a living, and to the society that gets things done that need to be done. A simple example: street cleaners are everywhere being replaced by men driving small vehicles that are similar to the gutter cleaning lorries. They are supposed to collect up rubbish with their whirling brushes, and they can sweep the streets in no time compared to a man with a broom. Except they can’t. They are, if you’ll forgive the pun, rubbish. They leave almost as much as they collect. And they also dis-employ unskilled workers, and remove human contact within communities. Why are they being introduced? Because they’re cheaper, and thus allow more of richer people’s income to remain immune from taxation. Greed, yet again. There needs to be the opportunity for employment of those who, either through inability or lack of ambition, do not want to go to further education. And that employment needs to be valued and appreciated, not looked down upon with sophisticated scorn. Such opportunities might give some of our young people more hope than they currently have.

And then there’s what might be termed the existential element of nihilism. I had a conversation with my 20 yr-old son recently. He’s at university. He’s not had a remotely deprived childhood. True, I’ve been an “absent” father (although I’ve always also been a present one) so what follows is probably my fault. He’s mixed race, as readers of this blog will know. I was frankly appalled at the bleakness of his view of his own, and society’s, future. He’s probably a perfect example of those youngsters who’ve had too much materially rather than too little. But he feels that his generation have been left to pick up the environmental and economic tab for our profligacy. That the future of the world and of society is in every respect dangerous and uncertain. We must stop our headlong rush to environmental Armageddon. We must set out a plan for economic well-being which is not predicated on unsustainable levels of energy and resource depletion. If we don’t, how can my son’s pessimism be addressed? He needs hope, and hope is not the same thing as denial and pretence.

I began by saying that fear cannot put right the things that have gone wrong. But in one sense, fear has its roots in hope. Unless we have hope for our individual and collective futures, we have no fear of acting in ways that damage that future. That fear cannot be sub-contracted to a militarised police force. It must come from within us. We should also be more honest about what keeps all of us on the straight and narrow. We like to see it as something to do with our personal morality, and castigate today’s youth for not having any. In truth I think it’s less pretty than that. We all make a kind of subliminal calculus about where our personal interests lie. In my youth I did a bit of minor shoplifting. I had as perfect a “moral” upbringing as it’s possible to imagine. What made me stop? It was when the calculus of risk shifted and fear about my future overcame the thrill and possession of what I was stealing. That’s the truth of it. In earlier times part of that internal subliminal calculus probably included the prospect of burning in hell fire, which is quite a disincentive. I’m not proposing that we can deal with our problems by commissioning public sermons on hell and damnation, but perhaps we need to find a substitute. Something that persuades our youngsters that part of what’s important are things that lie outside ourselves.

The most vicious rhetoric of the last few days has come from those paragons of right-wing virtue such as Melanie Philips. It’s all the fault of people like me. I beg to differ. She’s closer to the truth than she realises. Uncomfortably close. The problems in our society are symbolised exactly by the self-seeking, self-serving, self-righteous analysis that she represents. We don’t need more fear. We need more hope.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to the rioting, but I do know the right questions

Yesterday I wrote that at the root of the looting and disturbances across our cities lies a crude and simple human emotion: greed. An emotion that has become the key driver of our culture, of our economy, of our personal sense of success, and even of our existential purpose. But greed is mediated through our cultural norms, our intellectual hegemony, and our social structures. As we move beyond licking our collective wounds, we will need to address how to change, and what to do to redirect our social, economic and spiritual (not in a necessarily religious sense) course. To do that, we need to answer the right questions, those that get at the causes and the fundamentals of the malaise that the rioting and looting express. I offer below what I think some of these questions need to be. You will note, perhaps, that among them is not the question, “How can we give greater fire-power to the channels of law enforcement?” That’s both because I do not believe that the question is a very helpful one, and also because almost everyone else is asking it, and answering it in frankly terrifying ways, already.

  • The looting and rioting have given many young people a sense of liberated empowerment, of thrill, of danger, of simple collective and shared excitement. All young people need these things, and they are not bad things to want or to experience. How can we provide these things in legitimate and socially beneficial ways?
  • In a similar way, the gangs and informal connections between many of the young people who’ve been involved in the unrest seem to be providing a substitute sense of belonging, support and identity that, again, all young people need for their health and development. How do we provide these things in a society where for some youngsters the traditional channels of family and community have become disrupted and less effective?
  • Notwithstanding the undoubted power of “the herd mentality”, it is of course obviously the case that decisions about how to behave are taken by individuals. It is clear that the place of personal morality and responsibility in the minds of the young looters is weak or non-existent. How can we address this moral vacuum?
  • The young people taking part in these events have an entirely reckless attitude to their own personal futures and real interests. They feel that they have nothing to lose, and plenty to gain, from looting and mayhem. How can we persuade them that they really do have a future worth pursuing?
  • I’ve been struck by the explanations of their behaviour given by the looters themselves to journalists covering the events. A theme running through these responses has been a brazen defiance along the lines of, “There’s nothing you can do to stop me, and I’ll continue until you can.” I suspect that this is not unique to the young rioters. It’s pretty much the same explanation that politicians gave for their expenses fraud, that phone hacking journalists gave for their activities, that financial markets are giving to governments. Always the responsibility is being batted back to those who want to constrain, and denied by those who seem to feel that unless something is prohibited, it must therefore be permitted. How do we shift the sense of responsibility back?

The last question sums up why I have not included any question here about how the forces of law and order can be beefed up. Unless we want to live in the kind of authoritarian society that North Korea symbolises, it is simply not possible to rely on the imposition of restraint from authority outside our own heads. But if we don’t want a militarised police force, we must all restrain ourselves. We cannot keep 16,000 police officers constantly on London’s streets. We don’t want to see rubber bullets or water cannon, unless we’re unhinged or seduced by the rhetoric of punishment and revenge. The answers we have to seek are those that will instil in our young people self-control, and self esteem. Repression does neither.

And so my message to politicians is to please stop your macho posturing, please stop fantasising about the omnipotence of the criminal justice system, and most of all, please stop repeating the same old platitudes. Instead, have the courage to ask the right questions. Then we might have some small chance at least of finding the right answers.