Cheryl Kernot: the bleakness of contemporary Britain
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers are keen to reduce this to “sheer criminality” and the actions most certainly are. But it’s a fair bet that such behaviour also has its roots in the failure of contemporary political systems, policy responses and other contemporary cultural values, writes Cheryl Kernot, who worked for a time at the UK School for Social Entrepreneurs.
I lived in the UK quite recently for almost six years, working a chunk of that time at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bethnal Green close to Hackney and other East London suburbs featuring in the press coverage of the current riots.
Many of our adult students were drawn from the large ghettoised housing estates. They wanted to take responsibility for new solutions for their own communities; solutions to the lack of service provision in their local areas: more responsive community run pre-schools and play groups; more employment opportunities for offenders and disengaged young people; more integrated service delivery for unemployed African immigrants; services for children of parents with HIV/AIDS.
Huge pockets of unmet social need replicated in all the regional big cities of the UK.
But is this, one symptom of social exclusion, the driver of current events? Other commentators have said that there is no shared rationale, no clear political agenda and no common motivation such as racial incitement that have driven other recent riots or anarchic protests.
What the riots do seem to have had in common is violent destructive entry for the purpose of stealing; not just groceries and alcohol, but plasma TVs, trainers and the kind of “fashionable” clothing that signifies group inclusion. Does our understanding of social inclusion encompass access to a particular level of consumer goods?
What can possibly explain the emptying of a large department store in Clapham Junction where I lived; a suburb with both a high level of private home ownership and some housing estates; across the river in an area of completely different demographics from that of the east London and Croydon, areas of acknowledged social deprivation? What can explain the phenomenon of looters with the time to try goods on, reject the unsuitable and take the stolen away in the store’s carrier bags?
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers are keen to reduce this to “sheer criminality” and the actions most certainly are. But it’s a fair bet such behaviour also has its roots in the failure of contemporary political systems, policy responses and other contemporary cultural values.
For years many have written about the dominance of consumerism and the application of its language to ordinary service transactions between citizens and governments where everyone’s a client or consumer.
But to be a participant in a consumer-based society requires money as the entry price. If you don’t have a job, or the level of education to get a job, if you are condemned to growing up in a housing estate where intergenerational unemployment is the norm and drug dealing the way out, then your chances of participating in the fantasy world of conspicuous (or even normal) consumption characterised in advertising and in popular television shows are pretty remote. Why should you have hope?
To its credit the previous UK Labour government gave a very high budgetary priority to social inclusion and in partnership with local councils achieved some success in reclaiming “no-go” public parks, reopening youth clubs and regenerating communities with new housing solutions.
But there are still millions of Britons living in desolate wastelands of dehumanising housing where fellow tenants urinate in lifts and discard all sorts of social detritus; where gangs rule and where often there is a perverse solidarity based on shared lack of respect. And victimhood. I feared for my life in one that I had to visit. Where there is an absence of hope in the many families who have been deserted by fathers leaving even hard-working mothers unable to provide the material goods’ entrée card for teenage children.
An absence of hope in the faces of teenage mums impregnated by teenage fathers also absent from their off-springs’ lives. Young mums whose common response is to listen to a headset rather than engage with their babies.
How can any government easily deal with these challenges, especially in a small country with extreme population pressures on the very basics of social infrastructure?
The Big Society agenda might seem hopeful, but not when accompanied by massive cuts to almost every level of service provision at a time of economic recession. And not when it allows the obscene level of bankers’ bonuses to continue and maintains the mantra of tax cuts and lower taxation of the very wealthy as the undisputed way forward in all circumstances.
JK Galbraith in his seminal Culture of Contentment made a powerful explanation for how the current focus of government economic policy on the short-term self-interest of the economically fortunate would have disastrous consequences for social harmony.
This is at play in much of the bleakness of contemporary Britain. A liberal and tolerant democracy with lessons for us all.