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Benedict Rogers: Healing our sick society

I am not a father, but this year I became an uncle. My six-month old nephew has had a more profound impact on me than I had ever anticipated. And I am deeply concerned about the society in which he will grow up.

Twelve days ago, I wrote on the site about threats to our civilisation. In the past week, some of those threats became all too apparent in a horrific, vivid and tangible way on the streets of many of our cities. What I had thought was a slow-burning, smouldering undermining of society became, for a few days, a frighteningly accelerated, intensified, violent, mindless, anarchic reign of terror. Watches and wedding rings torn off diners at The Ledbury Restaurant in Notting Hill, ordinary people forced to strip and hand over their clothes, a Malaysian student beaten, injured and then robbed by people pretending to help him, children aged 11 or younger looting and stealing, girls who had been drinking all day laughing about the awful arson in Croydon, shops and homes and buildings that survived the Blitz destroyed forever: it was as if Mao’s Red Guards had taken over.

The question we are all grappling with is why? Unlike riots in the past, which were in some way about race or poverty, these were blatant criminality. Those who try to pin them on government cuts are plain wrong: it is not much more than a year since the Coalition took office, cuts have not yet been fully implemented, and children as young as 11 don’t typically take to the streets in protest at cuts. Just as an aside, it is worth remembering why there are cuts in the first place. Nobody said it better than Liam Byrne, Labour's chief secretary to the treasury in the last government, when he admitted in a note to his successor: "There is no money left."

There is, however, as David Cameron has said, a “context” behind the criminality, and it is important that we seek to understand that context and then begin to tackle the causes. The context is complex, and includes a range of factors, and the situation has been festering for years. All of us, of whatever political persuasion, need to take responsibility for the situation. The tone of the debate so far, particularly the contributions of Ed Miliband, has been encouragingly constructive overall in avoiding petty party political point-scoring, and I hope it will continue in that way. As the Prime Minister says, we’re all in this together.

At the heart of the riots is the gang culture that has been allowed to develop over recent years. But what is at the root of the gang culture? A complex web of family breakdown, bad parenting, drugs, debt, and a poverty of morals, values, culture and aspiration as much as of economics lie at the root, and reflect a wider malaise in a society based on a selfish, instant gratification culture lacking in respect for others and responsibility for oneself.

I recognise how extraordinarily fortunate I am. Not only have I had a materially very comfortable upbringing, I have also had a family whom I love and who love me. From as early as I can remember, my parents, sister and I ate meals together, round a table, rarely in front of the television, and we talked to each other. As I grew up, we had conversations about current affairs, music, literature, spirituality, religion, science, society. We still do, when we get together. We don’t always agree, we have lively debates, but at the heart of our family life is love, communication and a good home-cooked meal. My family is involved in the work I do for Burma, and in my sister’s musical career.  I sometimes look after my nephew. We are engaged in each other’s lives.

Yet for too many parts of society, the scenes I have just described are a world away. For the young people who end up in gangs, the gangs have become their families because there is no cohesion at home. And while poverty may be a factor, it is not the core reason. To blame poverty alone is an insult to the very many hard-working law-abiding families on low incomes who raise their children with discipline, integrity and values. It all depends on who the role models are.

I don’t remotely pretend to fully understand, or to have all the answers, and no one should claim to do so without thinking twice. But some of the analysis I have read in recent days, by people who know far more, chimes with me. Shaun Bailey is right when he highlights the failure to teach responsibility and instead promote a sense of entitlement. Allison Pearson is right to focus on a breakdown in discipline and authority. The degrading of the value of human dignity, our “failure to care”, is central, as Camila Batmanghelidjh so powerfully argues. The substitution of “welfare payments for relationships, rights for love, and the sterile processes of the public sector for the warm morality of living communities,” as well as “the ethics of indifference, dressed as liberalism”, as outlined by Danny Kruger, partially explains it. Graeme Archer is right to say that we have “de-civilised” some parts of our country. David Goodhart highlights celebrity culture, “get rich quick” culture and grievance culture. The Daily Telegraph is right, in an editorial and a full-page article, to note the total absence of respect or fear for the police among some parts of society. Channel 4's survey is noteworthy in that it cites 'bad parenting'. The Centre for Social Justice’s Executive Director, Gavin Poole, is right to refer to truancy, poor housing, benefits dependency and a section of our population “written off by society”. Max Hastings and Melanie Phillips make valuable contributions too.

So what do we do? How do we tackle gang culture, family breakdown, lack of aspiration? The first step, diagnosing the problem, has already been taken. David Cameron is right to talk of a society in which there are parts that are not just broken, they are sick. The work of the Centre for Social Justice is crucial here, and the government should pay serious attention to its reports, particularly on gang culture. Michael Gove is right to introduce new measures for discipline in schools. David Cameron is right to be consulting Bill Bratton - we should introduce Rudy Giuliani-style zero-tolerance policing. It is very good that Iain Duncan Smith has been appointed to lead the government’s efforts in this regard. I hope that he will listen to the CSJ, charities that do such amazing work with young people in deprived communities, such as Kids Company and Only Connect, and to former gang members such as Darrell James, who can provide invaluable insights into both the workings of gangs, how people end up in them, and how they can get out.

I would add one final thought. This may not be popular, but I think it is important. As everyone has said, nothing – nothing – can possibly ever justify or excuse the riots. It was criminality. The immediate priorities are to ensure that order on our streets is fully restored, the criminals are brought to justice, and the victims, those who lost homes and businesses, are given all the help they need. Then we must set about rebuilding these broken communities, both physically and by addressing the direct causes, as outlined in this article and in the articles I have cited. But we also need to ask ourselves some questions about the whole of society. A broken, sick society is not just one in which young, disaffected people loot, steal, burn and kill. That is simply the most acute, painful sign of it. A broken, sick society is also one in which newspapers hack phones, MPs fiddle their expenses, television presenters are paid millions for offensive programmes which fuel a culture of disrespect, an entertainment industry that churns out obscene violence, and bankers take grotesque bonuses at the height of a financial disaster. Greed, deception, a breach of trust, a breakdown in respect for others, an abdication of responsibility at every level of society are all signs that something is deeply wrong with our society as a whole. That doesn’t mean the bankers are to blame for the riots, or that the MPs’ expense scandal justifies looting, or any other absurd linkage – but it does mean a need for all of us to re-examine our ethics. David Cameron was absolutely right when he spoke of the importance of quality of life and not just quantity of money.

A hint of the kind of society we should be – not only in times of crisis – was apparent in the amazing response of citizens to the crisis. The courageous woman in Hackney, Pauline Pearce, who took on the thugs; TV historian Dan Snow who made a citizen’s arrest; Louise Smith, the brave woman in Wolverhampton who faced the rioters down, unarmed; 89 year-old Aaron Biber in Tottenham who has been a barber since the 1930s, and the people who have raised funds to get him back in business; Richard Mannington Bowes, the quiet pensioner who stood up to thugs in Ealing and paid the ultimate price; Tariq Jahan; and of course the thousands of citizens who took part in the clean-up operation. They are the best of Britain. A society in which we take responsibility not just for ourselves but for each other and our communities, a society in which we rediscover values of respect and discipline, a society in which we help those with no aspiration discover opportunity, a society in which hard work is rewarded, people respected and role-models inspire young people to a better future. A society based on hope not hate. That’s the kind of society I hope my nephew will grow up in.


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