We are hearing the punitive bellowing of those personally unaffected by the recent riots, as the courts hand down exemplary sentences. I suppose Messrs Cameron and Clegg and Mrs May did have their holidays ruined, but on £130,000 a year (and the rest!), I reckon they can probably catch up in the Autumn half-term. "Make them clear up the mess ... make them wear tabards saying they are criminals ... bang them up ... stop their benefits ... throw their mothers out of their homes". It is dismaying. Was ever a child made a better person through being harshly punished? Or an adult, come to that. Read that both ways.
Of course, the first people to blame for what happened are those who gave in to their baser instincts of violence and greed. Then we can blame their parents for not teaching them better ways. But might we not also look more broadly - the damage done by those riots is a fleabite compared to the damage done by the riots on the money markets, wanton excess, greed, and utter indifference to the welfare of others. The bankers didn't set fire to shops and houses. But they might just as well have done. And they were educated, privileged, and rich. Just like the rioters, they were care-less. Couldn't care less.
And let's go further up-market. Our country is still engaged in illegal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Does that perhaps send out a message about violence, that you can use force to help yourself to just whatever you please, even if it is in a spirit of vindictive vengeance? Where did the rioters learn it? They learnt it from their betters. And who goes to the wall? The bankers? No, massive bail-out. The politicians? Re-elected with unchanged (lack of) policies. The rioters? Yes, they must pay the price. They were wicked in public and must be made an example of. Unlike bankers and politicians, who seem not to have to take the slightest responsibility for their inactions, their carelessness.
Is this "broken Britain?" Of course not. Britain was never mended. Disraeli spoke of "two nations" and seemed to want to make them one - rich and poor somehow reconciled, the largesse of the few enriching the sparseness of the many. Between 1919 and 1979 the gap between rich and poor gradually got smaller. Since then, it has got substantially greater. Following on from the Great Depression, in the wake of the Second World War, and the economic stimulus war creates, and with the wonderful building opportunities afforded to us by the Luftwaffe, a new kind of politics emerged, which when I was teaching it used to be known as the "Post-War Consensus". Its prevailing principle was that things must never be allowed to get as bad as in the late 1920s and early 1930s again, that unemployment was a social as well as an economic evil, the waste of lives that could be productive and dignified. And it worked. But English people being the contrary people they are - just look at the opposing benches in the House of Commons, the architecture itself says "fight, fight, fight" and not in the way Sir Winston meant - the Unions got out of control, demanding too much for too little, until they had over-played their hand enough that they lost the game, and the managers and shareholders were helping themselves to anything they wanted, for very little at all.
Think of the hopes and aspirations of these lawless young people. What work do they have? Successive governments boast about the work they have created. This is an entertaining statistical lie. The work is part-time, minimum-wage, insecure, un-unionised. When a company does well, it doesn't expand and hire more staff, it hives off more money to the managers and the owners. Not everyone who is out of work counts in the figures. Hundreds of thousands of us are hidden in the figures for mental or physical disability. They call us scroungers. But I wonder how many of our rulers know how crushing it is to be rejected for countless jobs that aren't worth doing and would only have paid a pittance? Is it any wonder that despondency leads to depression, addiction, family breakdown, and a host of other social evils? "Work hard son, and you'll get a good job, just like I haven't".
They say the average full-time income of a working person in this country is £25,000 a year. I think this figure can only be reached by including a lot of people on fairytale salaries in the organised rackets that control the City, the professions, and business. But allow it to be true for a moment. What sort of mortgage could such a person afford? The average dwelling in England and Wales in 2010 cost £167,000. That's 6.7 times the average income. "Oh, but most are bought by couples", so that's all right. But is it? When my parents bought their first house my mother's income didn't count. I'm not saying that represents a healthy attitude to women, but that when the rules were relaxed, the banks realised they could fleece two people instead of just one. And the banks were not exactly limping by on a pittance themselves before. I don't know anyone doing an "ordinary" job who earns much more than £15,000. Our prospect of having a home of our own is negligible. There might be inheritances one day, but far too little, far too late, and eaten up by care home fees. And so we rent. And our leanness is stretched out to pay the pensions of the rentier class - we give our today, for their tomorrow.
Is it any wonder that people are resentful, bitter, violent, and avaricious? They are all utterly destructive ways of being, destructive of relationships, of the person, of the soul. And everywhere we look we see the signs of our avaricious society. "Don't save up, get a credit card and have everything you want NOW"; have you got the latest computer, TV, X-box, mobile telephone, car, clothes, holiday, perfumes, tooth brush?; don't bother cooking, buy something in expensive packaging full of salt, fat, and sugar; join a gym, rather than walking to work; doesn't the world owe you a living?" Well, yes it does, but not that sort of living. Smashing the house price inflation of recent years would be relatively easy, and would create work, and make practical training for trades attractive - build houses. Don't give them to councils, give them to almshouses, and never part with the freeholds. Quarter of a million a year for a decade would do it, and cost less than illegal wars. Private investors will be forced to turn to industries which actually create jobs. And the members of our society with the cheapest and feeblest stake in it would have homes of which they could be proud, homes they would not wish to lose, either to the bailiffs or the Luftwaffe.
It is a recipe for a safer, more inclusive, kinder, Britain. Don't punish those who destroy, build them something they will never want to destroy. They will aspire for something far better than rioting and looting for their children.
17th August 2011