The riots in Tottenham are hooliganism pure and simple.
For the British commentariat that is far too simple an analysis to be allowed to stand. Cue, thousands of column inches attempting to frame last night as an inevitable expression of the ‘class-war’ stoked by this Government. Please spare me that bullshit.
I’m sure that the Chinese whisper ‘on the street’ will be “cops kill family man, Mark Duggan, in cold blood”. That will have been enough for bored youths, who are no doubt suffering crappy prospects with a combination of the recession and poor education to go out and have ‘a good old fashioned riot and loot’. To some small extent they will also be emboldened by pictures of ‘Arab Spring’ that bombard our news, and to an even lesser extent be more against the Met than ever after the hackgate coverage.
Pseuds will over-analyse all the above ‘reasons’ and offer them as ‘excuses’. There will be more than a hint they are on the rioters side. In this over-analysis they will ignore the role played by the local gang leaders in stirring this up and the opportunistic criminality they engage in whilst it is kicking off.
We don’t know the circumstances of Duggan’s death – and it may well be that the police could have handled the operation far better. Someone has lost their life, he is a father, and no matter what he was up to that is a cause of sadness. Nevertheless, the fact the chap was carrying a gun and if reports are to be believed shot at a police officer, suggests the police were right to be moving in on him. Whatever, it will be far more constructive to wait for the outcome of the IPCC investigation before rushing out and burning down the local branch of Aldi.
The real damage the pseuds cause in their post-event rationalisation and politicisation of events is to foster a sense of justification amongst the riotors. There is no justification, there should only be shame.
This diagram graphically represents the size of our daily spending on servicing our debt in comparison with our daily spend on other areas. It is a sobering reminder ahead of today’s budget of why eliminating the structural deficit must be a priority. The depressing thing is that controlling the deficit will not change the daily interest on the existing debt – it’ll just stop it getting bigger and bigger. We’re going to be paying for the party in the 90s for a long, long time to come.
Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’. Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian. Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head. This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then). So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’. That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’. I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’. This figure needed some sniffing.
The original report is from Save the Children. It can be downloaded here. It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs). A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.
When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution. Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from. We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.
Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time. The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face. I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham. Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy. To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous. By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.
Happy New Year. Or is it? The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country. Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up. The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in. Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker. Things will get worse before they get better. We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services, the VAT rise will trickle to the till, we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago. Health and education reforms will spook the Unions. Protest will spread.
The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve. It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term. It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless. The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one. The challenge now is to be competent in delivery. The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery. If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015. Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.
Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government. We’re not. It is their choices, it is their fault” This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier. Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument. The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.
The lessons are there in History. Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today. For the whole period between of 80 and 82 it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power. Nerve was held. The budget worked. Britain, after the pain, prospered. Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands. But we must also learn from that period. Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again. That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program – but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver . This is the year to get moving. It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests. Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.
So on that dour note, I say again: Happy New Year. Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.
Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking. Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already. He points particularly at ‘Movement Activism’. This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about. The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts. We don’t need, nor wish, to be led. We don’t suffer fools gladly. Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians. Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and limited to specific issues. The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election. Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create a sense of being part of a real ‘movement’ for those who use the net to engage with them.
Does this matter? Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t. Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless. The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame. The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth. My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’. Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever. They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action. They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures. My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it. Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.
Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little. They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’. Suddenly it is quite scary. We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets. Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.
Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices. People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc. You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right. The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd. Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line. ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’. Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left. Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc. That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example. Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage. We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.
I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but I do know what the wrong response would be: The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting. My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot. We are living in testing economic times. Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people. New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process. We need to watch it and keep level heads.
“[…] for Northerners snow is something to skive for and go sledging in while for Southerners it is a ‘national emergency’.”*
*Slightly misquoted from the book “Pies and Prejudice.” By Stuart Maconie
The first dump of proper snow each year is a very easy time to be a UK news editor. The story has already written itself many times over the preceding years; “Britain Woefully Unprepared for Cold Snap” is the headline followed by pages of:
- outrage at lack of salt or gritters;
- closed schools;
- musings that Switzerland or wherever copes so much better with so much worse;
- forecasts of the devastating economic damage that the nation will endure because thousands like ‘Mrs Jones from Guildford’ could not get to their job as a receptionist at the dentists or whatever.
- Etc. etc. –
Given this current freak cold-snap is of a severity encountered this early once every couple of decades the newsmen can wallow in a dreamland of subtle variations on the above being spawned from copy-paste then minor edit of articles from last time around. It’s a similar news phenomenon to the annual “GCSE Results at Record Level – Accusations of Dumbing-Down” circus. I’m convinced most news editors book their holidays for the third week of August and leave that one pre-written on the deputy’s desk before they set off.
Anyway, I tend to be a bit more philosophical about snow in the UK. When people predictably lament our lack of preparation I wonder – what do they really want? Do they really wish us to spend an equivalent percentage of GDP on snow preparation that the Canadians or the Swiss do to cope with the few days a year we get hit? If so, which services are cut or which tax do we raise to fund this elite snow-disaster-management hit-squad?
And the people who are moaning loudest – can I just check that they have taken personal responsibility for shovelling their own drive and steps? And heaven forbid, while they were at it – have they actually thought of gritting their own street immediately beyond the boundary of their dropped kerbs or are they just sitting on their backsides moaning that big government only does the main roads?
Actually, on that last point I will join the curmudgeons and moan about the vanishing yellow or green grit boxes that used to be on every street so we could help ourselves. These have vanished over recent years almost in direct proportion to the increasing prevalence of the view that for every ‘problem’ there is a government solution, as drilled into us by New Labour.
That aside, I’m going walk my daughter to the childminder then work-from-home today. I can’t see the point in putting myself or anyone else at risk by setting off to the office. My wife, who is a hospital doctor, doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – so she used healthy common sense and set off very early. Once out of our side-street the roads were clear and she got to work quicker than normal thanks to gritted roads and lighter traffic. All power to our supposedly ‘unable-to-cope-with-the-snow’ council for that one.
For everyone who is wound up I suggest you copy the kids enjoying their day off school and treat snow a bit like other annual inconveniences such as flu and food poisoning. The difference is that if you get out on your sledge, build snowmen and have snowball fights then this ‘inconvenience’ can be enjoyed. In a word Britain, pun fully intended: Chill!
This article was first written in January 2010 and I will shamelessly republish it at first snow dump every year.