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11 August 2011

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.

By Mehdi Hasan

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’.”

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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!