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Memo to left and right: please stop generalising about the looters

The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives.

Some on the left -- including Ken Livingstone, Harriet Harman and Seumas Milne -- have been accused of resorting to knee-jerk, ideological, socio-economic explanations for the recent outburst of violence and vandalism in our cities and towns. It's too simplistic to blame the "cuts" or "poverty" or "racism", say their critics on the right. Indeed it is.

But what of the right's own knee-jerk and ideological explanations for the riots? In today's Daily Mail, for example, Melanie Phillips -- who else? -- rails against Britain's "liberal intelligentsia" and fumes about the "feral children" behind this week's riots. The standfirst (not available in the online version) sums her argument (if you can call it that!):

"Breakdown of the family. Single mothers. Soft justice. Drugs. Multiculturalism. Welfare. Educational failure . . . We're now paying the price."

Simple, eh? But as the Times's crime editor, Sean O'Neill, tweeted earlier this afternoon: "The stories coming out of the magistrates courts say very clearly that this is not all about 'feral youth'."

The fact is that not all of the accused rioters and looters are members of the so-called underclass. The Sun says on its front page, under the headline, "Riots: meet the accused":

"Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire's daughter, chef and schoolboy, 11."

The "millionaire's daughter" is Laura Johnson, who is alleged to have helped loot a branch of Curry's. According to the Telegraph:

The 19-year-old is a high-flying pupil who attended St Olave's Grammar School -- the fourth best-performing state school in the country.

She is now reading English and Italian at the University of Exeter.

. . . She achieved four A*s and nine A grades after taking her GCSE exams at St Olave's sister school, Newstead Wood.

She went on to take A-levels in English literature, classical civilisation, geography and French.

While studying she offered her services as a tutor.

Her parents, Robert and Lindsay Johnson, live in a large detached farmhouse in Orpington in Kent. They bought the house, which has extensive grounds and a tennis court, in 2006."

Hmm. Not very "feral", is she? And I'm not sure how she fits into Mel's welfarism/multiculturalism/liberalism narrative? She's been raised by two parents, in a wealthy environment, went to a fantastic school and is now at university.

So can we stop generalising please? On the left AND on the right?

Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today's Guardian, we should have anticipated . . .

. . . how this week's mayhem would be used by the political classes: as a kind of grand Rorschach test in which members of right and left would peer into smouldering suburbs and shopping streets -- and see precisely what they wanted to see.

If you're a left-winger, the causes of the violence and looting are straightforward: they're the result of monstrous inequality and historic spending cuts; while the youth running amok through branches of JD Sports are what happens when you offer a generation plastic consumerism rather than meaningful jobs.

For the right, explaining the violence is even simpler -- because any attempt at understanding is tantamount to condoning it. Better by far to talk of a society with a sense of over-entitlement; or to do what the Prime Minister did and simply dismiss "pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick". You can expect to hear more of the same rhetoric in today's debate in parliament, especially from backbenchers on either side.

And then there are the think-tankers and policy entrepreneurs who must scan the daily headlines for hobby horses. At a conference on Wednesday on well-being, in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, Lord Richard Layard opined that the British rioters were "unhappy". In case you didn't know, Layard is the author of a book called Happiness (a new edition is just out).

Offering up a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and has since spread as far as Birmingham and Salford must be a nonsense.

Hear, hear!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.