The Age of Responsibility

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, August 13th 2011

As the burning embers fizzle out and the streets and cities of England return to some degree of normalcy, so the inquest begins into the causes and consequences of what we are all now calling ‘the English riots’.

It is clear the losers are those who have chosen to simplify and attempt to make too obvious political capital out of the troubles: Ken Livingstone for one was disowned by many Labour colleagues for jumping on ‘the cuts were to blame’ bandwagon ahead of next year’s London Mayoral contest.

All of our political classes are struggling to find the right words, avoid clichés and connect with the public mood. The simplicities of many on the left and right have jarred even more in these times. The left blaming ‘the cuts’ and falling police numbers, the right a police service neutered by a PC culture, alongside the last Labour Government busting the nation financially.

To some, the young people on the streets are Thatcher’s children, to others Blair’s children. They are neither. They are our children and all of us bear a responsibility.

Socio-economic facts clearly matter. Britain is a fairly unequal society and getting more so. London is the most unequal city in the developed world. When the French rioted in 2005 most of our press and politicians were happy to talk about the French malaise; similarly the Rodney King inspired riots in LA of 1992.

The lessons from the English riots might be difficult for many of us to comprehend. For years Britain has been characterised by a moral panic about childhood, fears and concerns about teenagers, and worries about boys in particular. From the evidence so far, although the media has focused on some female looters, the vast majority of rioters and looters were young men.

A few years ago UNICEF reported that British children were the unhappiest in the developed world. For decades boys have been slipping behind girls in school grades and university places.

How we bring up children is about families and the importance of parenting. Government matters, but we also know that love matters more than Sure Start centres. This is a sensitive area which has been vacated for years by most politicians, Iain Duncan Smith and his Centre for Social Justice excepted.

David Lammy, Labour MP fore Tottenham, the area the troubles began in, has noted this and this year set up the All-Party Group on Fatherhood in the House of Commons. Lammy thinks the difficulties young people face is aided by the pressure on parents and changing nature of society. He thinks this impacts on young boys and men more with ‘the huge consequences of the lack of male role models in young men’s lives’ from their family to school.

‘How do you find your masculinity in the absence of role models?’ he asks and answers, ‘Through hip-hop, through gang culture, through peer groups’. It is tougher for young Afro-Caribbean men, but for other boys too.

This is an argument gaining credence and adherents amongst people who work directly with young people and advise government on such issues. For example, Sue Palmer, author of ‘Toxic Childhood’, recently wrote ‘21st Century Boys’ and has worried about the impact of our status obsessed, go-getting, instant gratification culture.

Boys seem to be finding it harder to adapt to the changing influences of nature, nurture and culture, and are increasingly being diagnosed with more developmental disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There is a generational chasm occurring in our society that we seem barely aware of. Young people and their elders barely know one another; both stigmatise and stereotype the other; the extended family hardly exists in many places.

Some people believe that young people have been let down and betrayed by their elders, by immature, selfish, me-first adults. Young people have been left to their own devices and their peers, rather than guided and aided into adulthood through the support and wisdom of older people.

Lammy has lamented that ‘no one on the left’ wants to talk about these issues and it does seem for the moment that Cameron is more at ease talking about morals, authority and character. Invoking Britain as a ‘sick society’ goes back to some of his earlier thinking on ‘Broken Britain’, as does his call for a ‘clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by’.

Interestingly, Cameron’s talking of responsibility mirrors the recent shift by Ed Miliband before the current troubles. This looks like the new terrain and area of convergence in British politics, post-Thatcher, post-Blair.

Cameron’s responsibility agenda will be one of social authoritarianism, law and order, punitive welfare and tougher attitudes towards irresponsible young people. Long gone are the days of ‘hug a hoodie’ Dave. Ed Miliband will argue that Britain’s elites whether in politics, banking or media have diminished the moral sensibility of the country. And that both the ‘overclass’ and ‘underclass’ have to acknowledge rights and responsibilities.

The House of Commons was recalled this week for the second time in the summer recess. The first sitting debated the lack of a moral code and sense of right and wrong in the Murdoch press and top echelons of the Met; the second on some of England’s youth rioting and looting.

Is it not possible that we can maturely put these two debates together? Trouble at the top and in some of England’s most fragile, pressurised communities. Is it not possible to see the high-octane, irresponsible living for the moment actions of the vandals in our banking system and on our streets, as motivated by some of the same factors? Both are status driven, masculinised, testosterone filled environments, of thinking just of yourself, your lifestyle and feeling happy to trample on others.

Acknowledging the importance of responsibility and how it relates to rights and respect would be a watershed moment. One that didn’t look for glib answers or just scapegoating one group. But realised that all of us carry some of the blame for what our society has become, from the looters in Tottenham to the bankers in the City of London, and the numerous adults who have forgotten that it is in all our interests to help and assist in the nurturing of the next generation.

That’s a difficult task involving both being tough and soft, talking about rules and boundaries and love, empathy and emotions. And maybe us Scots can stop feeling self-satisfied with our lack of rioting young people, in a society deformed by a culture, language and actions of violence and men behaving badly.

Lets talk about good fathers and mothers, men and women, boys and girls, and the need for good authority, and find ways we can support them all.