Lindsey German writing for the Huffington Post - David Cameron's focus on the family serves to absolve the authorities of blame.
David Cameron blames the family for the riots. In this, he is at one with most politicians and pundits are blaming the family for the riots. Not the Royal family, of course. Not their families, you understand. Their children don't riot or steal or behave badly. But our families.
Conveniently, that means the authorities can't be to blame. Their policies, their opinions, their inactivity in the face of worsening inequality, cannot be challenged because it's all our fault.
To do anything else, to show a glimmer of understanding of what is really wrong with society, would be to deny the policies which successive governments have followed now for three decades. So they devise a simple equation: marriage is at an all time low, divorce at an all time high, the number of children born outside marriage is also at record levels. So the problem must be the lack of a strong nuclear family,
Now it's true that everyone lives in families. It's true also that many families today are single parent families. Some as a result of divorce others because they didn't get married in the first place. One third of all marriages in Britain ends in divorce and first time marriages are at an all time low.
But society doesn't begin and end at the family. All sorts of other factors influence and affect what sort of family we live in. So the blame the family argument, whatever you think about it, is illogical - not least because it ignores any other common factors facing the communities involved in the riots.
Let's look at a few of them.
Work: Women work outside the home on an unprecedented scale - not necessarily because they want to but because you need two incomes to maintain a family whereas one income sufficed a generation or two ago. We work some of the longest hours in Europe and in a quarter of all families with young children one parent works evenings.
Unemployment: Youth unemployment rates are high in most of the areas which saw rioting, and there is little prospect of finding well paid work.
Poverty and inequality: The gap between rich and poor is at its highest for 200 years in London, with the richest 10 percent there having wealth worth 273 times that of the bottom 10 percent, according to Professor Danny Dorling at Sheffield University. Inequality has grown in recent years.
Education: Many young working class children see education as their only route out of poverty. But their schools are denied resources and subject to a narrow curriculum (unlike in the private sector); their Education Maintenance Allowance is being cut, which will make it harder for poor children to stay in post 16 education; and tuition fees at universities will treble next year. Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities have few black and Asian, or indeed working class, students.
Racism: Black and Asian kids are 7 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police.
Housing: The right to buy council houses, the growth of a new class of private landlords, property speculation and rising prices have all led to a chronic housing shortage in London. Most young working class people have no chance of getting on the lowest rung of the housing ladder, nor of getting council housing.
Consumerism: For the past two decades we have been told that we define ourselves by what we consume. The happy family is a consuming family, and that the expensive brands are what we all aspire to. Yet real wages are falling and living standards are declining, so most of the consumer goods are denied to many.
Are we seriously saying that none of these factors had any bearing on what happened over the past weeks?
If you are on an estate like the Pembury in Hackney, just next door to where I live, then you are likely to be poor, you are likely to be in overcrowded housing without gardens or amenities for children, and your children will face a future with little hope for jobs and education. There may be no room for children to do their homework, and they may not receive proper meals. It is just two miles from the City of London, where bankers spend more in a night's drinking in a champagne bar than these people live on in a month. It is around the same distance to the new Olympic park where resources go into stadiums, expensive shopping centres and luxury housing all out of the reach of local people.
So families are affected by income and life chances and by class. To be told by Eton educated David Cameron that you need to take more responsibility for your family is galling indeed. Most of the cabinet ministers hand over responsibility for their children to nannies, housekeepers and boarding schools. If they work long hours, there will be a myriad of services available to them to carry out the roles they would otherwise have done in the family. They can afford private health care, a range of personal services, and extra tuition for their children to ensure that they don't fall out of an increasingly competitive education system.
Boris Johnson, the London mayor, talked of a sense of entitlement felt by young people who had rioted. The exact opposite is true. It is the Johnsons and Camerons who have a sense of entitlement. They believe that their background and education give them the right to anything that they want, and to deny so much to the poorest in society. They believe that the rich are entitled to become richer, while the poor have to accept devastating cuts in their incomes. While those on disability benefit are subject to pressures to find work at any price, Johnson advocates a tax cut for the very richest.
Many young working class kids, on the other hand, feel that society has little to offer them and does not value them. No wonder that some of them acted in the way that they did this week, by trying to grab some of the consumer goods usually beyond their reach.
Article originally appeared in the Huffington Post
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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