Will Cameron attempt to understand the riots?

In 2006, he said: "Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing c

Harriet Harman is normally one of Labour's best media performers but she was badly outclassed by Michael Gove on last night's Newsnight. Her first mistake was to claim that Ed Miliband had been "well received" in Peckham because of his opposition to "the trebling of tuition fees, the taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the cuts". Her words appeared to imply that the riots could, at least in part, be explained by anger over these policies.

Scenting blood, Gove replied: "Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs?" To which Harman rather limply responded: "No. Don't put me in that position", ignoring the fact that she'd done that all by herself. From that point onwards, Labour's deputy leader was constantly on the defensive as Gove demanded repeated condemnations of the violence from her ("Michael. Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I totally condemn it," she said, appearing to protest too much).

Harman's confused performance contrasted with an earlier BBC interview in which she robustly condemned the violence and emphasised that "most young people, whatever their circumstances, do not resort to criminality." But her mistake was not to suggest that we must examine the underlying causes of the violence, rather it was to fail to identify the correct ones. It is absurd to claim that the riots were triggered by the tuition fees rise and by the abolition (or, rather, replacement) of the EMA, policy changes that many of those rioting are not affected by and have no awareness of. But they were a symptom of a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake. As The Spirit Level pointed out, the most violent countries in the west are also the most unequal ones. Thus, Harman was right to declare: "I don't agree wth Cameron when he says it is simple. It is not. It is very complex. But unpicking those strands is for another day." (If only she had taken her own advice.)

In his short statement outside No. 10 yesterday, Cameron argued: "This is criminality, pure and simple". But while the Prime Ministers' desire not to be seen to explain away the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the thoughtful, analytical response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what was dubbed his "hug a hoodie" speech (though he never used that phrase himself), Cameron argued: "The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it." Without this, he warned, "we'll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes." Cameron was talking about youth crime but he could have been talking about this week's riots.

That speech was delivered during Cameron's "detoxifying" phase, before the hiring of Andy Coulson and his swerve to the right. But if he still believes in tackling the causes of crime, rather than merely the symptoms, he must revisit these early insights. His statement to Parliament tomorrow will be the first test of whether he is prepared to create the intellectual space for a more thoughtful debate to begin.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage