“London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared-and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls”
You could do worse – for many reasons – than listen to the Clash’s back catalogue but it is remarkable just how pertinent many of the band’s songs, written for a very different time, are right now. London does indeed appear to be calling.
The scenes of rioting and unrest in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and other towns across England have been utterly shocking and terrifying. The last time I can recall seeing such a level of violence and disregard for the rule of law and the safety of others was in the 1980s when Thatcher was Prime Minister. It was a period of mass social dislocation which has distinct echoes in current times. When young people are prepared to stand in front of national television and state “We do it because we can”, we should all be alarmed.
Not just because that statement carries portents of future unrest but also because of what it says about the state of our society and how young people have come to feel about their role in it.
What motivates young people to behave in such a way? The reasons are multifarious and complex. There is no doubt an element of copycat behaviour, of the mob gathering momentum, of opportunistic criminals taking advantage. But to blame the young people who did this entirely for their own actions, as is currently going on, is to miss the point entirely. We are all to blame for the scenes of destruction and depravity witnessed across England in recent days.
The response of politicians, once they could be bothered to return from their expensive foreign holidays, and the authorities, caught napping, is disappointing in the extreme. The language is loaded, along with the guns, and only serves to reaffirm these young people’s sense of dislocation and distance from society.
Already the official narrative is being written to suit the adults – children out of control of their parents (when the vast majority of participants are clearly over 16, if not 18); rioters predominantly black (not on my TV screen they weren’t); a criminal underclass terrorising decent law-abiding communities (yet those communities now demonstrating commendable qualities of partnership and solidarity have generally crossed their own streets to avoid their young people); riots driven by greed and criminality not underlying highly political concerns (when every aspect of their young lives has so far been directed by political decision-making, whether their school is well-funded, the powers the police have, the lack of routes to work, training and education, the money they have in their pocket, the poverty in which many have been raised).
Such elements were present in the riots of yesteryear but we appear to have learned nothing in the intervening period. We think we can treat young people with contempt, demand respect when it has not been earned, consign them to a lifetime of poverty, disregard their need for education and nurture, cut their services first and hardest and cast them on to the scrapheap of life in order to preserve our own cosy lifestyles.
We have left them with precious few choices and a whole heap of problems. Who do we think will pay the price of our collective indebtedness and the measures being applied to fix it, measures which commentators estimate will take a generation to work fully?
Consequently, young people are rioting because they can, because it is all they can do. Hope is an unfamiliar companion, the idea of generational justice is laughable and nihilism is the order of the day. They have no fear because they have no future. We should all take a long hard look in the mirror in trying to understand how it has come to this, particularly if we want to avoid London coming calling to our town.
This post originally appeared on the Herald online where I also blog, along with several others. Who are all fabulous and fabulously different. Please do check them out! And take a regular peek as more bloggers are arriving weekly.