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Why Britain won’t solve the riots

A Commission casts Britain in its own images, blaming the poor for poverty and largely excusing the corporations for causing it. And they wonder why people are angry.

And so the answer is in. The root cause of England’s riots of last year is poor people. Problem solved. This is a little unfair as a characterisation of the report of the Commission set up to look at the causes of the riots and to propose means of preventing them happening again. But not by too much. Yes, the report points out that there is some kind of problem about the targeting of the young by corporations advertising with the sole aim of creating an unquenchable desire among a vulnerable group, all for the purpose of getting rich out of their poverty. The rest, however, seems unsurprisingly to be about the problem of poor people. That is a distinctly different thing from the problem of poverty.

What seems to have happened in Britain through the increasingly well-documented vilification of the poor (and especially the young poor) is that poor people in Britain now have the status of exotic ‘others’ in the way we used to talk about ‘natives’ in the British Empire. We know they are there but we see them rarely and mainly from a distance and so they look quaint and inherently problematic.

So schools are to be bashed for the routine ‘processing’ of poverty in which they currently specialise. Children are to be taught respect and parents are to be punished if they don’t do the job well. And in all of this we have only the values of the conquering class and no sign of the defeated.

A Commission is set up packed with people who don’t riot and never will because, by the standards of those caught up in the trouble, they are rich. They already possess all the things the youngsters were trying to appropriate. Avarice never looks like avarice when you already have it. And they don’t seem to understand the natives – as one commentator points out, they are complaining about ‘parenting’ for a lot of families which explicitly or for all practical purposes contain no parent. They don’t understand what they are ‘curing’ and so they place their own values on the policy response.

Compare and contrast with the policy advice resulting from the banking crisis. Now there are a group of avaricious destroyers of value who have no concern at all for their fellow citizen or what their actions caused. Better parenting for merchant bankers and the boardroom? Didn’t hear that one. Meanwhile the Chancellor – the Chancellor – is looting the streets like a deranged one-man mob ripping money from the fingers of grannies to plunge into the pockets of his delinquent friends. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies doesn’t object too much so that’s OK.

A Commission set up with participants and those directly affected would not have produced this. We put upper-middle-class professionals on every committee to make every decision and every decisions concludes that the values of the wealthy are solid but that the ‘others’ are a problem. They simply can’t see that the shares their pension fund own in tobacco companies illegally marketing cigarets to the children of the poor is in any way a social issue. Only smoking children is – and that is the fault of their school or their parents.

This is not to suggest for a second that there is no problem with education or that parenting in the UK is generally exemplary. It is just that the question will never be answered – how are parents supposed to keep their children from becoming ‘avaricious monsters’ if Sky makes sure that the first 14 channels of kids TV are advertising with cartoons spliced in? Seriously, in what direction is the finger of blame to be pointed?

Self-satisfied elite-class opinion is no less valid than the self-satisfied opinion of anyone else. It’s just that everything in society is made – and unmade – in its vision. So we reward bankers and punish the poor. And we think this offers us a route out? In their isolated dreams.

Robin McAlpine