This appeared in The Pioneer on August 10, 2011. Paper version: Thursday, August 11, 2011. To read the article on their site, click here.
The Text of the article is replicated here:
A nation at war with itself
August 10, 2011 10:20:27 PM
Meeta W Sengupta
Historically, England has faced economic deadends many times but it has managed to tide over them. Similarly, violence and anger are not alien to Britain where the masses have rioted often. Yet, the anger, the thoughtlessness and the criminality of the acts on the streets of London cannot be justified by the fact that the rioters are healthy, vibrant youth with nothing to do and nowhere to go
The only surprising thing about the riots that erupted at Tottenham in London is that they have been allowed to go on for so long. The police seem to be losing this one to the looters, so far. On a daily basis too, on the streets, they strive to maintain their authority, yet are subject to funding and administrative pressures. The tide of the force on the streets rises and falls with uneven regularity.
Much has been written about the perils of consensual policing, about the leadership vacuum, about the fallout of the welfare state that creates a generation with nothing to work towards. All of these combine with the simmering discontent that has been layered with layoffs, spending cuts on social services, long queues for the NHS (admittedly free at point of use medical care), jobs being taken by hardworking competitors from the expanded European Union, the obvious rewards that immigrants have been able to garner to build visible wealth. The list goes on. And it would be more relevant if reason had anything to do with the current situation.
The trigger this time was about communities, about demanding a response, an explanation from the police for their actions. Such accountability from public servants, via peaceful protest, is certainly what keeps institutions and communities in balance. It is the month of August, with leaders and key workers away on holiday. A phrase from my interactions with civil servants echoes — “It is beyond my pay grade to do this”. I am confident that the officers on the spot felt incapable of dealing with the situation — this probably was not in their job description.
But the anger, the thoughtlessness and the sheer criminality of the acts cannot be covered up by the fact that it was a mass that was made up of healthy, vibrant youth with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A generation that sees no respite from the recession, its shops on the high street boarded up, its manufacturing in disarray being taken over by upstarts from other countries. A generation (or two) that can barely read, write, spell or do maths. And this is not for lack of native intelligence, nor sheer grit or strength. The rioters are not short of any — as evidenced by the comprehensive sheet of instructions being circulated about how to avoid being identified even if captured by CCTV cameras. Or by the choice of shops to loot, and the effective escape from the authorities.
It is no secret that youth gangs in some parts of London (and other cities) terrify the middle-aged, middle-class, middle of England folks. Gang wars have been common, with canine forces being employed by either side to kill and maim. Schools have metal detectors to ensure knives and guns do not enter the premises. Secondary school teachers have been attacked for seeking nothing more than good manners in a classroom. Gangs of ‘hoodies’ (youth with hoods pulled over their faces to avoid detection by CCTV cameras when shoplifting, etc) gather at street corners and harass residents — challenging youth to either be with them or against them. Admittedly, most areas are safe — and those that are not are on riot maps for all to see.
These are youth who have rarely had a chance, say sympathisers. They never learned to value themselves. They have never been held to account and had dysfunctional families. Disempowered by their dependence on the state, disenfranchised by their inability to compete. A confused set of values, a faulty compass of right and wrong.
This is in direct contrast to middle-class values that remain strong. Of fairness, endeavour, enterprise, hard work, the occasional moan and the inevitable cup of tea. The nation survives on its spirit of ‘get on with it’ — witness the clean up attempt, the ladies who shouted down the rioters, the communities that came together to ensure that right was done.
Time and again in its history England has had economic deadends staring at it in the face. And they have through sheer grit managed to come through — whether it was the conflict with Spain (and its Armada), whether though colonisation, or whether through claiming new lands such as Australia and sending its boatloads off home shores. It sees another such economic crisis — with no way of paying for its masses, its old, its children. And nowhere to send them.
Britain has long had this debate about what it means to be British. A construct that never found true definition. A society still divided by class. A country of football hooligans and cricketing gentlemen. Where rugby is the true sport of the upper classes — a bloody bone breaking fight for glory. Historically and recently, the masses have rioted often. Violence is not alien to this nation, nor is anger. Its history is bloody, many of its wars fought street by street, hill by hill. A small nation of great power — a nation clashing with itself.
— The writer is an education stategy consultant who has lived, worked and taught in London for a over decade.