Some in Pakistan are enjoying a sense of schadenfreude after seeing the incendiary scenes of burnt shells and looting emanating from the UK. Wishing friends to stay safe in London from the confines of Karachi does possess a somewhat perverse irony. Jokes abound of dispatching Rehman Malik to sort out the law and order situation in the UK, or asking Altaf Hussain to deliver a conciliatory speech to appease the mob in Ealing. There are also those who have fallen into the trap of conflating Karachi’s recent problems with events in London and other UK cities.
The truth is London and Karachi’s problems are not equitable. When people riot in Karachi, it is either at the behest of a political mob fighting ethnic and political turf battles, or because people are venting at the lack of basics amenities: food, water, power and security. In Karachi, they burn tires for paani and atta — not plasmas and addidas.
Let’s be clear, the rioters were opportunistic vandals and thieves (often, driving around in their own vehicles). These youths were hardly on the breadline — their anger, on the surface, unfathomable. The family of Mark Duggan, the Tottenham resident killed by police on August 4 and the supposed catalyst for the subsequent disturbance, was quick to dismiss the mob. This wasn’t about avenging Mr Duggan’s death, or protesting police brutality. This was the urban alienated youth sticking two fingers up at the rest of society and having a laugh. It should have been universally condemned and not used, as the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, did, as an opportunity for cheap political point scoring. He described the riots as a ‘revolt’ against the government’s cuts in public services. This was baloney and mischief-making. If this was about cuts, why target local businesses, buses and services. One such business, a party shop in Clapham that was burnt down, gave all its profits to a charity called Street Kids Rescue.
Destroying businesses only exacerbates unemployment and stagnates economic growth. Also, despite talks of cuts, Mr Livingstone forgets that public spending and government borrowing presently continue to rise in the UK. This wasn’t about the cuts. Nor does it justify the actions of the mob. Few law-abiding citizens, especially those who have seen their property destroyed, would agree with the former mayor’s apologist tones. If the violence spreads, we can expect a more heavy-handed and robust response from the police and the government.
However, where Mr Livingstone does have a point is when he talks about the disengagement of the young. “They feel no one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them”, he said. Personally, I think it was too soon for someone of his standing to acknowledge this point whilst people’s businesses were being smashed (who speaks for us, they may declare), however Mr Livingstone does raise a valid issue. We cannot, as much as we would like, dismiss the perpetrators as mere ‘feral scum’ — ‘chavs’ that should be locked up. Whilst not condoning the wanton vandalism, we do have a responsibility as a society to try and understand it.
For too long, the UK has seen the emergence of a growing underclass — not a working class — but an underclass blighted by urban decay, poverty, welfare dependency, addiction and family breakdown. As the traditional manufacturing working class jobs disappeared during the 1980s, those who failed to make the aspirational leap to the lower middle class, with their service industry white-collar jobs, fell onto society’s scrapheap. A new class was born, a sub-class, cut adrift from the rest of society, without hope or a future. The left blamed the neo-liberal monetarist policies of Margaret Thatcher. The right blamed the permissive society, family breakdown and the dependency culture of an indulgent welfare state. Since then, neither side has managed to resolve the problem.
It is the children of this generation (often from broken families, with little parental or adult guidance) that are hurling the bricks and lighting the fires in our cities. Politicians, across the political spectrum, have failed spectacularly to tackle the underlying cause of the underclass expansion, or the subsequent social problems that have arisen. Instead, the politicians have preferred quick fix, eye-catching solutions that appeal to voters and the tabloid press. So, in the 1990s, we had Tony Blair announce on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour and the creation of ASBOS (anti-social behaviour curfews). It helped win the support of the Daily Mail, but only further marginalised the outcasts from society. Suddenly, it became acceptable for mainstream society to laugh at the ignorance, poor hygiene and clothes of chavs. Whilst the UK was enjoying record growth at the turn of millennium, chav Britain was being mocked and scorned in equal measure. Shows such as Little Britain and Shameless satirised the underclass, meanwhile the Daily Mail and The Jeremy Kyle Show openly derided them. It was socially acceptable to mock the poor. The result was further alienation and a further tear in the UK’s social fabric.
Bizarrely, it was left to David Cameron, the new leader of the Tories, to be the first senior politician to acknowledge the dangerous gulf emerging between society’s haves and have-nots. He famously declared in a speech that we must ‘hug a hoodie’ and try to understand the isolation of today’s youth. But there was subsequently little policy follow-up after the controversial speech. Cynics argued that the speech had merely been a branding exercise; an opportunity, prior to an election, to reinforce the message that the ‘nasty’ Tories brand had indeed changed.
Let’s be clear, the riots, and the destruction of people’s property and livelihoods, are abhorrent. The culprits must be punished severely and dealt with quickly. But neither should this be dismissed as the spasms of a bored youth. This needs to be a sharp wake-up call for the political class. Our underclass hasn’t — and isn’t — going to disappear any time soon. We can no longer ignore them. In a year’s time, the Olympics are coming to London. The entire world’s eyes will be on the UK. For Britain’s politicians, the hardest competition will be mending the country’s class divide.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2011.