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Aug 10, 2011

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.

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47 thoughts on “Cheryl Kernot: the bleakness of contemporary Britain

  1. Pamela

    Much more thoughtful and incisive than the rubbish on rn last night blaming the WELFARE STATE for the riots.
    Will the US with its State protection of the wealthy and massive cuts to basics for the poor have similar troubles?
    Socialising the losses from the GFC may not be such a good idea in the long run.

  2. Peter Ormonde

    Good piece Cheryl,
    But I think you’re letter Blair’s cosmetics off far too lightly.

    That stuff from Brendan O’Neill last night was really quite nauseating wasn’t it?…
    And yet if you think about he he was giving a perfect illustration of what has sparked this viral rampage.
    That’s the second time I’ve heard O’Neill on the ABC in the last week. Why are they giving this appalling individual any oxygen here to spread his disgraceful hatred? Is this some crude effort at ABC “balance”?

  3. Peter Ormonde

    Sorry “letting” – accursed spell-checker!

  4. Michael Virant

    Thatcher’s Briton.

    “There’s no such thing as society,” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once declared.

    And people still think she was the best thing to happen to that country. It is just as much those neo-cons’ responsibility as the excluded youth unable to express themselves in any other way. But don’t expect any softening of the heart – that’s pinko territory.

  5. Sean Bullock

    How can I take an observation of British society seriously written by someone who lived there for six years and doesn’t even know which side of the thames Croydon is on. This makes me question any accuracy of the details contained in this opinion piece.

  6. Perry Gretton

    @Sean Bullock: “who lived there for six years and doesn’t even know which side of the thames Croydon is on”.

    If that’s all you have by way of argument in refuting Cheryl’s observations, then you have nothing useful to add.

  7. Frank Campbell

    Income inequality has sharply increased in the UK (since Thatcher), as it has here and the US.

    But this is rarely mentioned- since the Left was coopted by corporate capitalism.

    Gillard, intuitively right-wing, unintellectual and indescribably banal, is the logical conclusion of this process.

    On your marx!

  8. michael r james

    It is nothing new. I first lived there in the first half of the 80s and saw the awful effects of Thatcherism. (and the slightly later effects such as allowing State schools to sell off their “excess” property–which most did, forever depriving many British state schools of playing fields and space; this was criminal; of course it was only the poor ones that were forced into the sell off thus widening the gap between the better-off and the lower-economic classes).

    Then I lived there again in the second half of the 90s. It was even worse. I voted LibDem in the election that gave government to Blair and couldn’t understand the adulation of this jumped-up school prefect. I last visited a few years ago and was appalled, all over again. I vowed to never visit again if I could humanly avoid it–telling my few friends there that, in the future, they would have to meet me in Paris or somewhere.

    It is the leadership class. Even if middle-class types like Blair can reach the very top, they do not believe in a true meritocracy, or in fact exploit from the heights of a self-justified brahmin class. This is the case with the laughably self-proclaimed “leftist” Brendan O’Neil. The reality is he is an economic rationalist who believes in laissez faire Darwinian struggle so those with “exceptional” talent (like he imagines himself) will rise to the top (and dominate everyone else).

    But anyway this part of the cycle they are right back to the old system: an Old Etonian (David Cameron) who never has needed to work in his life to his buddy and Deputy PM Nick Clegg (Westminster School then Cambridge). Even if Thatcher was famously a grocer’s daughter she too, like Blair, went to Oxford (Somerville College). These places reinforce the superiority complex in upwardly mobile Brits and so it becomes self-perpetuating class warfare. It is why I still remain a supporter of Gordon Brown, a scot (PhD U. Edinburgh). The Scottish have a more robust egalitarianism and generally better schooling than the Sassenachs.

  9. Sean Bullock

    @ Perry Gretton

    It indicates the writer lived in a cocoon without really knowing the city or it’s people. The whole argument is based on academic theory and discussion rather than experience.

  10. Peter Ormonde


    Spot on.

    I’ve been puzzling for a few days about why these outbreaks haven’t spread into Scotland and Wales … but you’re right I think: far more open and egalitarian cultures.

    It’s not about hardship and economic austerity. At least not directly. It doesn’t get harder than Glasgow. It’s about exclusion and privilege amongst the English ruling elites.

    Interesting isn’t it?

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