This month, rioting and looting gripped England. At a time of uncertainty, it seemed salient (and perhaps inevitable) to ask, if the UK were a fragile state, how would we approach the events of last week, their aftermath and the future?
Building stability overseas
In July, the government brought out its Building Stability Overseas Strategy. Some of its basic premises have considerable resonance for our situation at home:
- ‘The stability we are seeking to support can be characterised in terms of political systems which are representative and legitimate, capable of managing conflict and change peacefully…’
- ‘This type of “structural stability”, which is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes.’
- ‘The most peaceful political systems are accountable, giving everybody a voice, and trusted to manage and accommodate change.’
- ‘Effective local politics and strong mechanisms which weave people into the fabric of decision-making – such as civil society, the media, the unions, and business associations – also have a crucial role to play. All sections of the population need to feel they are part of the warp and weft of society, including women, young people and different ethnic and religious groups.’
- ‘In many fragile states the army or police can be the main face of the state for many citizens, and their behaviour can have a disproportionate impact on perceptions of legitimacy.’
- ‘Jobs, economic opportunity and wealth creation are critical to stability. Lack of economic opportunity is cited by citizens as a cause of conflict, and is often the most significant reason why young people join gangs…’
- ‘Only a healthy private sector and a well-functioning state can, in the long run, generate the growth and, particularly, the jobs needed for a sustainable exit from poverty, fragility and conflict.’
- ‘Without growth and employment, it is impossible to meet the basic needs of the population, and people’s aspirations for a better life for themselves and their children.’
- ‘While an inclusive and legitimate political system is a requisite for stability, confidence in the future comes when people see that their needs and expectations are being met on the ground.’
On the basis of this kind of analysis, I suggest, you would look at
- social inclusion/exclusion and marginalisation
- hope and confidence in the future – or their opposites
- political institutions – both national and local
- the condition of the economy and whether economic policies are creating opportunities
- the capacity, resourcing, training and behaviour of the police
- the space for civil society and for bodies such as business associations and trades unions to represent, articulate and influence
Localised & intense violence
Partly because friends, colleagues and contacts in other countries have been asking whether the media reporting is hype or on the mark, it seems worth trying to summarise my own rough idea of what happened.
After localised violence in north/northeast London on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th August, violence erupted much more widely, afflicting at least 20 locations in the capital on the afternoon of Monday 8th and into the night. Next day it spread to other major cities in the Midlands and northwest, with three people killed. There have also been two deaths in London.
In all these instances the violence seems to have been very intense but also very localised. On Monday one centre of the violence was 3-4 minutes’ walk from where I live but I only knew about it because of television news, twitter and blogs, and the thwumping noise of the helicopter overhead. From what I can gather, that’s fairly typical. If you’re unlucky enough to be on a street that looters targeted, it was frightening; on the next block, you may have wondered what the fuss was about.
But the violence has affected everybody and not just because of living near it or knowing people who saw or suffered. It has had a particular quality that has got everybody thinking and wondering – about ourselves, about our communities, our values, politics and country.
There is not only a frightening edge to the violence but something horribly discomforting. It is not just a matter of people – sometimes whole families working together – taking stuff from stores. It’s not even just the nastiness of burning big stores or trashing local shops and pubs.
Some of the violence has been so personal, so mean – the deliberate running down of three men trying to guard their community, killing them, or the attack on a man who tried to extinguish a fire in a garbage bin, killing him too, or the theft from a young man who was already injured.
The fear people feel and express is not only physical. It is a moral, even a spiritual fear. There is a visible callousness among some rioters about anything and everything that most people ordinarily value. Everywhere you can hear and read puzzled people asking (or experts trying to answer), Just what is going on, what has gone wrong?
In my view it is the nature of the events rather than their scale that fully justifies the introspection that has begun. The question is, in what direction will it go?
A vibrant debate has started. Not surprisingly, numerous loud voices want a hard line, urging the government to use, inter alia,
- Curfews (including a suggestion for a voluntary curfew, a concept whose effective content evades me),
- Water cannon (Cameron says it’s available, senior police officers say it’s not useful in the circumstances they face),
- Plastic and/or rubber bullets,
- And the army.
The government is also talking about removing benefit payments (e.g., for unemployment) from anybody convicted over the riots. In what seems like a purely spiteful variant, Wandsworth Council in London has announced, with Prime Ministerial support, that it intends to evict from social housing the father of a convicted rioter.
Meanwhile, the commentariat is out in force to analyse, explain and recommend. This is the necessary battle of ideas that we must have if we are to find a way out. It is important that it doesn’t just turn into a blame game, and especially not into a bout of political point scoring. At present, surfing around and picking up articles recommended by tweets and bloggers, it seems there is a lot of good analysis and insight around (including these five articles and this one).
Encouragingly, it is not only the liberal commentators who are urging politicians and citizens to look beyond criminality to the context of violent disorder. One of the best pieces of analysis and one of the bitterest dissections of the amorality of the upper class were both published in the conservative Telegraph.
There is one (and only one) aspect of the response to these sad events that is more heartening than the immediate recourse to reasoned debate, and that is the self-mobilisation of ordinary citizens in turning out to clean up their communities: #riotcleanup was the top London trend on Twitter during Tuesday 9th.
But as the opinion polls, the comment threads on lots of these articles, Twitter traffic and a combination of common sense and historical parallel all suggest, communities’ reactions can take more than one form. With that vicious and fearful shadow looming, it is not surprising that many people of impeccable social conscience look at the news footage and ponder imaginative modes of retribution.
Not surprising – not productive either.
The politicians returned from their holidays that the international financial crisis couldn’t tear them away from and started saying things.
- The Prime Minister David Cameron started by saying it’s all just ‘criminality, pure and simple’,
- and then shone his spotlight on a society that is not just ‘broken’, as he put it last year, but sick.
- He has also criticised the police’s performance – reflecting a lot of public opinion on this.
- And the police and politicians – especially including the PM – have started to dispute the degree to which the police response contributed to the riots escalating.
- Home Secretary Theresa May would probably like to forget her comments last September, specifically addressing and dismissing the risk of public disorder if the police are subjected to spending cuts.
- Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg may have mixed thoughts about his embarrassingly prescient reflection in last year’s election campaign that a narrow Conservative win plus cuts would equal a wave of riots.
The ‘deeper problems’
Cameron’s starting point is that it’s ‘criminality, pure and simple’. You can understand the political need to say this, but taken at face value it’s a pretty gormless statement, taking one facet of a complex problem and saying that’s the whole thing. It’s absolutely no guide at all as to what policies the government should adopt – and more than that, it’s no guide as to what policies it will adopt. Because, like everybody else, Cameron, as reflected in his House of Commons statement on Thursday 11th, knows there are ‘deeper problems.’
This is the fulcrum of the debate that has now started: what are those deeper problems? And then, of course, how to address them?
Cameron focuses on
- “A major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong.”
So it is the parents’ fault for failing in the upbringing of the children and it is not to do with economic or social opportunity, exclusion or well-being:
- “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”
The fact is, however, that culture also sits in a context. And it is that context to which David Cameron’s attention could be fruitfully directed by the government’s own strategy for building stability.
Another couple of quick contributions to his and the government’s thinking - and the opposition’s – could come from the work done on how to help fragile states become more peaceful and prosperous.
Start with questions
In the OECD/DAC guidance for working in fragile states, rule number one is to start with context. To the inevitable question about how to do that, the answer is to start with questions.
Questions need to be asked in a spirit of inquiry; that seems cloddishly obvious but when issues and debate heat up one casualty is the honest, open and straightforward question – too many questions get not asked but laid, like landmines. And answers need to be listened to very carefully, yet treated as provisional and incomplete.
The best of the opinion pieces that have been written often comment on the difficulty of getting the balance right in trying to understand what has been going on – the balance between all the different factors. A resilient and balanced understanding of it all will not come out of one head, one article, one brilliant writer: components will come but to find the proper balance they must be in dialogue with each other.
Thus, Beware the tendency to label. The power of generalisation sweeps all before it and gets in the way of good analysis and effective policy. Whatever one-dimensional that is attached to these events, it’s wrong.
Some lines of inquiry
I will return in another post to some of the components of an open-minded dialogue of inquiry about the events in England last week (and by the way, one question to ask is, why only England – why not Wales or Scotland as well?).
Among the things that are pre-occupying me now are:
1. The economic context, not only in terms of narrowed opportunity but also two other links:
a) Pessimism about the future that was deliberately projected by the government last year to justify the cuts;
b) The power of bad example: “What links the City banker and the looter is the lack of restraint, the absence of boundaries to bad behaviour.” (Larry Elliott)
2. The longer-term social context in which significant numbers of people seem to have lost all sense of identity with community along with much sense of opportunity and agency.
3. The social psychology that could explain the astonishing lack of empathy shown by many rioters and looters.
4. The condition of local political institutions, after they have been hollowed out by successive governments over at least 30 years.
5. What actually happened and how numbers of people were mobilised – along with what it is that they thought they were being mobilised for.