Poverty, Social commentary

Seven months on: what were the reasons behind the August riots?

One of the key investigations into the causes of the Summer riots is due to publish it’s findings tomorrow.  The report of The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel is important as its remit was to give a voice to the communities and victims directly affected by the August riots.   As ever, those closest to the issues often speak the most sense.

The key reasons

The BBC, with the headline ‘Riot Report reveals 500,00 forgotten families’, state the following factors as the key reasons shown in the leaked report:

  • A lack of support and opportunity for young people
  • Poor parenting
  • An inability to prevent reoffending
  • A lack of confidence in the police
  • The failure of schools – especially in the area of literacy
  • Aggressive marketing of branded goods

Personal responsibility or societal failure?

As ever, behind reports such as these a familiar tension emerges.  Should the responsibility for the rioting and looting be placed primarily with the individuals and families involved or are wider social problems to blame?

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham where the riots started, commented:

“Of course there are issues in our schools, but it is so easy when things go wrong to point to a big institution and say the schools should do more.  I would place more emphasis on family life, on parents and on community.”

R&R’s thoughts from last summer

I could not help thinking how similiar the findings of this report are to the three reasons that were summarised in the R&R blog post the day after the worst of the riots – The Unpredicted Tinderbox: 3 factors which fuelled the riots.  The 3 factors we highlighted were:

1) Consumerism – we are a nation which has gorged itself on consumerist values and easy credit which have created poverty and left little room for any sense of true values such as hard work, caring for others, for family and commitment. Like spoilt children who don’t respect their parents, rioters have contempt for the peddlers of these addictions.  We have a generation deeply malnourished by a poor diet of technology, violent computer games, bling labels and dysfunctional and disinterested family situations.  I grew up in Croydon and in many ways it is a town centre dedicated to consumerism – endless shops with big windows designed to provoke discontent and increase spending.

2) The lack of moral authority in key institutions – the number of high profile scandals that have hit institutions like the Police, Parliament and the City has hugely undermined the moral authority of the establishment.  It stokes a sense of injustice among many urban young people that they cannot trust the ‘suits’ and that ‘everyone is on the make’.  Free papers now mean that far more people read the headlines about banks paying the ridiculous bonuses, MPs claiming on houses that don’t exist and Police being paid by newspapers.   Surely these are just middle class versions of shop looting? They see ‘the grabbing hands grab all they can’ and believe they are following suit.

3) The collapse of family – there is no way that the Police can stop the numbers of young people who are determined to cause problems.  Policing demands consent and they will always be outnumbered.  What we are seeing is the massive impact of broken and dysfunctional families.  Where are the dads stopping their kids from going out and rioting?  Too often it is left to mums struggling alone who cannot physically stop their children.  A cocktail of poverty, amoral attitudes, both parents having to work and the loss of any sense of personal responsibility means that the traditional barriers to poor behaviour simply don’t exist.  We have been too scared to talk about family breakdown for fear of being judgemental but it is the biggest cause of poverty, exclusion and violence in the UK today.

The difficulties ahead

Darra Singh, the Chairman of the panel, said today:

“The causes of the riots were complex and there is not one thing that will prevent them from happening again.”

He is right.  And I don’t want to be unduly pessimistic but I think the situation in many urban communities will become less stable as unemployment, public sector cuts and changes in the benefits system combine with the continuing breakdown of family life, dependency culture and unrealistic expectations about what the state will provide.  

I believe that the riots last summer were not a freak event but a warning shot.  They were alarming evidence of deeper problems that will surely re-surface again unless the underlying causes are addressed. 

Related articles: Taken over by The Fear: the spiritual roots of the riots

1 thought on “Seven months on: what were the reasons behind the August riots?”

  1. There’s one area that doesn’t seem to have been covered in the report which is the lack of robust policing. The police strategists were in the mentality of ‘it’s OK – we’ll catch people afterwards’ which they did, but the police standing by apparently tacitly accepting the behaviour exacerbated the situation and deeply offended a lot of people’s sense of security and fair play. If they had done what they did in later days on the first night we probably wouldn’t be talking about the riots now.

    In terms of the report, there are some positive areas, particularly the themes they group their recommendations in – ‘character’, ‘branding’, ‘hopes and dreams’ are all heading in the right direction. Unfortunately the majority of the recommendations themselves are tired old statist solutions asking professionals to do more or tinkering at the edges. They fail to imagine what genuniely revitalised communities might look like or have an understanding of how they can grow. I found barely a mention of faith or non-geographic-based community groups. And they fail to recognise that doing this means making difficult decisions about reshaping the priorities of our whole soceity – this isn’t something that a technocratic and professional class can solve or ‘do’ to everyone else.


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