Broken Britain?


I am angry. The riots in our cities have done untold damage and harmed society, communities and individuals in ways that won’t be clear for sometime. It’s heartbreaking to see local shops torched, homes destroyed and property damaged. But what’s really got my ire is the responses to these actions by people I think of as friends, by people I used to respect. “Shoot them”, “national service”, “corporal punishment”, “send in the army”. I’ve seen all of these as suggestions from normally level-headed people, and I can’t think of less appropriate responses if I’m honest. It disgusts me, it sickens me to my core that such callous disregard for the values I though we subscribed to as a society are the immediate response to outbreaks of rioting.

The number of people who’ve pasted the “broken Britain” message on Facebook is ridiculous and repellant. Not only does it continue the entire Tory narrative and harken back to a (non-existent) golden age in which the poor didn’t clash with the rich (a simple reading of history will remind us of this, surely? Tollpuddle, anyone?), but I don’t even recognise the country they’re describing.

The main claim is that parents and society are “soft on discipline.”

Assuming this is remotely true (and I’m not convinced it is), I’d suggest two things: 1) do research to explore the role of discipline and 2) identify the social context of people who “didn’t get enough”.

The first thing they’ll find is that discipline doesn’t only happen at home, and that a range of people have disciplinary influence.

Then they’ll discover that there is good discipline and bad discipline. Bad discipline can be abusive, disproportionate, dissociated from the offence, prejudicial, counter-productive and fail to address underlying problems. Examples: people who hit their children randomly because it’s the only control they have in their life, people who don’t adapt discipline to what works with a child, people who hit their child for minor offences (I’d argue that deliberate use of physical punishment at all is abuse, but that’s a value thing, albeit one with a fair amount of evidence), people who punish (particularly) young children hours or days after the offence, people who make children from minority groups jump over bigger hurdles or limit their freedom more (eg. black kids being stop-and-searched), using negative reinforcement all the time whilst ignoring the good behaviour of the child and people (outside the home) who punish children for their behaviour without realising it’s the manifestation of domestic dysfunction.

Then they’ll discover that all of these things happen at all levels in society, rich and poor, black and white, immigrant or locally born, one or two parent families, upper class, middle class and working class. The difference is that rich white middle/upper class kids born in Britain tend to have more social capital. There are more resources to support them, more opportunities, more understanding of their situation and more attempts to resolve it using non-disruptive means. They’re more likely to have parents who have one job and are home in the evenings, they’re more likely to have the necessities of modern life: computers, game consoles, trainers, the latest LPs from popular beat combos. Even if mum and dad can’t afford these, it is more likely that the people around them – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours – will be giving them as gifts. They will get emotional support from teachers and families when they have domestic crises, and are more likely to use youth clubs, sports clubs and after-school groups. They’re more likely to perceive the police as being protecting of their society and if they do commit offences, less likely to be caught, prosecuted or receive custodial sentences. Their home is likely to be warm, well-furnished with a garden, situated in a nice estate. They’re likely to have a range of clothes appropriate to a range of weather conditions. Their education is likely to be higher quality and they’re more likely to go to university and become a professional. Their parents have better job security and tend to have a more stable home life. They are more likely to have inspirational role models. Their health is more likely to be good and they’re more likely to have access to high quality food and drink.

Now, take black, immigrant, single parent family living in the poorest areas in our society. Each of those “disadvantages” decreases the chances of that being true for them. Mum is more likely to be working two or three jobs just to have enough money to provide enough food and basic clothing (and mums who are not at home are unable to supervise their children!). Kids are more likely to be stop-and-searched routinely, colouring their view of, and relationship with, the police. Their school is more likely to be in special measures, they’re less likely to have access to extracurricular activities and they’re less likely to go to university. The home is more likely to be a council flat than a semi-detached luxury pad. There’s less job security, more dependence on the welfare state. There’s likely to be more incidence of illness and addiction, the food is less likely to be considered “good quality”. Interventions in domestic are more likely to be dramatic and decrease home life stability, with less social support during those times.

Now, this background is socially constructed, shaped by the policies of government, social mores and norms, stereotypes and institutional policies. This means that actions of government results in direct impacts on disadvantaged groups: and they’re called disadvantaged because they have fewer resources to cushion the impact and to act as a buffer to protect them from hardships and they don’t have the contacts to minimise the impact on their group. So when the government decreases funding to councils, the least advantaged end up with no after school groups and nowhere to go whilst the more advantaged groups weren’t reliant on council projects to start with: they pay for their kids’ social activities.

Reductions in police levels on the streets result in fewer patrols in the poorest ares because the more advantaged in society are more likely to (have time to) engage with community policing teams and ensure their neighbourhoods don’t suffer. The net effect is that crime disproportionately affects poorer neighbourhoods, which results in increased suspicion of people who (appear to) come from those areas and results in them being more likely to be directly affected by violent and property crime and “antisocial” behaviours.

The government cuts welfare budgets and the people most dependent on them – the people most likely to have poor health, most likely to be injured at work (and least likely to get compensation), the people with the lowest levels of job security – suffer the most. And business policies which promote a move from manufacturing toward service industries result in entire communities looking for new jobs as factories shut down and works become uneconomic. People with specialist skills suddenly find their skills are no longer relevant in a job market where they might be able to look forward to unskilled call centre jobs at minimum wage which involves abuse both from customers and managers, not to forget that the number of unemployed exceeds the number of available jobs.

Worse, we blame the victims of these policies and social changes for their circumstances. The word “chav” is simply a way to dismiss people who are the least privileged, have the fewest opportunities to be in secure, paid employment, a good education and the luxuries of twenty-first century life, as being an underclass who have brought it upon themselves. These are not the people who closed factories, who ripped the hearts out of mining communities, who condemned entire neighbourhoods to unemployment.

Perhaps Britain is broken. However, it’s not broken because parents don’t discipline their children: that analysis is as facile as it is dismissive of any legitimate concerns that people might have about about their futures and communities. If Britain is broken, it’s because of the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the widening gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the widening gap between the richest and poorest in society.

The answer to this is not to force everyone into national service (although I’d love to see a programme encouraging people to take an active role in community life). It’s not to blame parents for not disciplining their children. It’s not to blame the least well off for their circumstances.

The answer is to address inequalities, to revitalise communities with jobs and opportunities, to create a society in which to be British is to be proud of your neighbourhood and to be supported by the people living around you. It’s to invest in children, to invest in adults and to invest in narrowing the gap for the benefit of everyone.

None of this justifies or excuses the behaviour of people rioting. They are taking their anger out inappropriately, taking the opportunity to get the fripperies of modern life at no cost, and they are harming their neighbourhoods, communities and themselves. However, if we want a society in which people aren’t that angry in the first place, don’t see luxuries as essentials denied to them by the privileged, and in which actions taken build supportive, industrious and proud communities then we must address these underlying problems. We must examine our values, our relationships and our stereotypes to ensure that everyone is included in our modern, progressive society.

It’s a long, hard and expensive road, but it heads in the direction of a better Britain. That’s the Britain I want to be proud to live in.

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About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

3 responses to “Broken Britain?”

  1. Meg Roberts says :

    Excellent analysis of a tricky issue, a response rather than a reaction!!

  2. simon says :

    You make a good point, but, reaction’s are just that, and in many ways are a way to vent anger and disgust. I would imagine if you asked those same people outside of the heat of the moment, their reaction’s may be different, let’s hope.

    But, you fall into a trap, it’s the same one I have seen over and over again. These riots are not simply a blanket consequence of the ‘wrongs’ of society, the gaps between the ‘have and have nots’ it’s a mixture good and bad. And, let’s not forget, many many young people have grown up on the same estates, had the same disadvantage in life, but didn’t riot, that is very telling. That is down to parenting in many families.

    National service is an emotive word, well, mostly because we associate this with the Military, but you could, if the political will was there, send them into their local communities, even for 6 months, to show them what society is about, cleaning graffiti, delivering food to the elderly, engaging in social projects.

    Because there are answer’s, but, I also blame them directly for their actions, and make no excuse for what they did due to their upbringing, and society. And, it’s us, society, who have been too blind, to soft, for too long that have brought us to this point.

    I agree with most things in your blog, but self awareness, I don’t believe, is something that they lack, and I think most people know the difference between right and wrong.

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