Riots verdict • 28 March 2012 • The SnowBlog
I've just been reading some of the conclusions about the UK riots of last year. I imagine responses to the report will be a lot like the responses to the riots themselves. Some people will feel that we need to be harder on rioters and potential rioters. They have to be punished harder to deter any future public disorder.
Whereas the report itself seems to lean more towards the idea that people without a solid stake in society, who have very little to lose, are most likely to attack that society. Or put another way, society itself has let too many people get to the point where they say, "Why not?" That finding chimes with my personal feelings, and I have to say, in terms of what's happened in the last couple of years, it still feels like we're moving very much in the wrong direction. Because of what the banks did, we're eliminating jobs for young people, then we're eliminating benefits, we're cutting back on many of the programs that might support them and we're hoping that threats of increasingly harsh punishment will keep them in line. You couldn't make young, poor people feel less wanted if you tried. We don't care about them and we won't help them, but woe betide them if they treat us with the same disdain.
And this last budget underlined the point. No matter how grim things are, we can always find a way to cut taxes for the rich. But (apparently) there simply is no way to offer anything to the poor except stiffer sentences if they do something anti-social. We can find money for the Olympics. We can find money to protect ourselves from the threat of Afghan horsemen menacing the shores of Britain. We can afford an 'independent' nuclear deterrent (which only the Americans have the keys to). But support for young people facing a bleak future is considered an unaffordable luxury.
And obviously I don't know what's going on inside the heads of rioters, but I can't help feeling that part of their problem is that they don't believe those at the top are actually playing by the rules. In terms of devastation to the country, the financial crisis dwarfs the riots: so where are the calls for draconian deterrents to prevent another credit meltdown? Shouldn't we be locking these people up and kicking their families out of their homes to send a message to future would-be ransackers of the financial economy? The answer appears to be 'no'. You have to assume that a different set of rules apply when rich people threaten society. None of which excuses rioting, but I'd feel much less disgusted about locking someone up for stealing some bottles of water if recklessly gambling away a billion pounds of other people's money was also vehemently discouraged - and by 'vehemently discouraged' I don't mean taking away someone's knighthood.
If we want to make potential rioters feel like we're all in this together we can't excuse the rich and jail the poor, and we can't bail out the rich and squeeze the poor. Doing those things is how you force people to riot, not how you prevent it.