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Editor’s blog – Mark Duggan verdict: the British riots and their socio-economic roots

By Dean Carroll

Yesterday’s inquest verdict deeming the Metropolitan Police’s killing of Mark Duggan – an event which sparked the 2011 London riots – to be lawful threatens to light the blue touch paper once again. Commentators have concentrated on the declarations of “no justice, no peace” from the family but the issues underlying the resentment that led to the riots more than two years ago still hang heavy in the air.

In August 2011, Britain witnessed anarchy on its streets the like of which had not been seen for many decades. Despite the political left’s claims that the riots were the result of austerity cuts and the right’s assertion of blame being down to a ‘sick’ underclass, we all know that the reality is not so black and white. The civil unrest was not exclusively a result of nature or nurture.

Estimates put the monetary cost of the disorder at hundreds of millions of pounds but the psychological effect on the nation is beyond measurement. The divide between the top and bottom of society has been growing for many years. And despite the 2011 riots and the Occupy movement, the issue has not been confronted. Why did these children – and most were below adult age – feel that any stake they had in society was so meaningless that they were happy to risk all just to loot a shop?

For too long – British politicians have ducked the big debates, hiding behind slogans including ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. The last Labour administration paid lip service to intervention. The current United Kingdom coalition has rejected state involvement in family issues – beyond promoting marriage and blithely repeating the Big Society mantra – completely. And talk of building super-prisons is now a distant memory – some will say, thankfully.

Even so, whether youth workers and charities could totally fill the void – if adequately funded – is doubtful. On inner-city estates and in deprived areas blighted by poverty – criminal gangs offer status, belonging and an income to a generation abandoned by their own families, the education system and the jobs market. It is difficult to see where the answer lies. British Prime Minister David Cameron may feel that American-style supercops can clean up London and our regional cities as Bill Bratton did in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. But the British Prime Minister has no budget to increase police numbers, the real reason change – in terms of lower crime statistics at least – was achieved in American cities.

Were it the case that someone like Bratton could be handed a blank chequebook for his ‘broken windows’ approach – or ‘zero tolerance’ as it has been called in the UK – the underlying problems that led to the collapse of law and order would still exist. We know that approximately 80 per cent of the rioters had already been in trouble with the police. We know that no effective moral compass – aside from a devotion to rampant consumerism – has really replaced family values, community spirit and religion in Britain’s secular state of advanced capitalism.

We know that the youth unemployment rate stands at one million young people. And we know that job creation numbers are unlikely to improve significantly anytime soon – if at all, given the seeds of economic malaise in Europe, the shift of manufacturing jobs away from the West to the East and the UK’s economic reliance on the troubled financial, service and property sectors for growth.

With these huge mountains to climb, fixing what Cameron historically referred to as “broken Britain” really does seem to be an almost impossible challenge for public policy-makers. The one lesson that can certainly be learnt from the chaos in 2011 is that you cannot give up on young people unless you are willing to let them give up on society itself.

Full effort must now, somewhat belatedly, be given to crafting a way out of the socio-economic mire in which the country finds itself. There are no obvious solutions but the alternative to trying might well be an acceptance of summer riots as a fact of British life. Especially if verdicts such as those in the Duggan case allow the injured parties, rightly or wrongly, to suggest police assassinations are part of a wider conspiracy against the have-nots in society.

Dean Carroll is editor of Policy Review. You can follow him on Twittter @poljourno and you can follow Policy Review @Policyrev

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