Family breakdown and the riots: Melissa Benn

It was mainly young men on the rampage. Why?

Yes, of course, the left gets family values. Or the best of it does. We just don't get it in a tradi­tionalist make-divorce-harder/bring-back-patriarchy kind of way. Instead, we have been part of the slow-motion moral struggle to build a broader, more generous view of family: an understanding that everyone flourishes as part of an intimate network that cares about our talents, our troubles, our past and our future. This has brought more people - gay couples, stepfamilies, single parents - under the umbrella of "family values". Remember: David Cameron only won power by appearing to understand and welcome this crucial shift in the way we live now. He might go back on it in a moment of pure political panic. The left must not.

There has been a lot of talk about black and white culture, but much less mention of the obvious - it was mainly young men on the rampage. So, I'm curious: what wasn't stopping them, externally and internally, from being so careless, and cruel, and criminal? Is it really down to family, or lack of ?

I suspect many of the rioters had worried, despairing mothers at home, mothers who feel unable to exert much influence or control over their nearly grown offspring. We might want to ask: do absent fathers come into the equation? Is this all part of an ongoing cross-class crisis in men's identity, in a world where gender roles have changed so markedly? And how do we have that conversation in a way that distinguishes us from the Daily Mail?

We can't forget the socio-economic factors: poor housing; a divided and deeply unfair school system that gives the least to those who need the most, and is obsessed with results rather than learning; diminished youth services; slashed benefits; the ugly, shallow nature of consumerism that has everyone, rich or poor, in its grip. Employment, or the lack of it, is a huge part of it, too - a lot of young men face a workless future.
I watched the riots from France and found it all pretty shocking, including the way the government so quickly reverted to ruling-class type. Cameron's punitive, myopic talk of parts of society being sick reminded me in its deeply English way of the row over Nicolas Sarkozy's use of the word racaille to describe rioters in the suburbs of Paris in 2005. By contrast, Ed Miliband has distinguished himself through the simple attempt to listen. That demonstrates far greater strength and genuine leadership.

Melissa Benn's "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education" will be published on 5 September by Verso

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?