As is always the case after any unexpected social schism, policymakers and journalists are all casting about for something to blame for the riots. The current leading candidates seem to be either the ineffectual government response to the initial trouble or some wishy-washy 'these people have political goals' explanation. However, I think that if Britain really wants to be honest about the cause of these riots, we need look no further than the nearest mirror.
Over the past decade Britain has become a more and more individualistic society to the point where I'm not sure what being British means any more. As a country I'd be hard pushed to come up with the defining characteristics of what makes the country 'British.' The term British itself has become increasingly associated with right-wing racist nutjobs ('Keep Britain for the British' etc.) and looking externally for some form of reinforcement doesn't provide much help in the post-colonial era. Britain used to be an innovator in engineering and science, but if we're brutally honest America has kind of usurped that role - leaving us to become a service economy with no inherent identity.
A perfect example of this can be seen if we compare the opening ceremony of the Vancouver winter Olympics with the 'trailer' for the London 2012 summer Olympics. Canada showed the world a rich cultural history of its native peoples, an earnestness of spirit and a dash of self-deprecating humour (c.f. the closing ceremony after the high-profile set malfunction). Sure there were touches of cultural stereotyping, but that was the spice not the steak.
What did Britain have? Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin playing electric guitar on top of a red London bus. I feel kind of entitled to ask, where's the beef?
The knock-on effect of all of this is that people in Britain no longer have an identity to aspire to. Modern British celebrities like Richard Branson or Simon Cowell tend to be best known for being famous, rather than as business wizards or record industry moguls. Sporting heroes fare no better, as often they're better known for drug use, prostitution or starting drunken fights.
So where does that leave British youth? It leaves them with only one aspiration - fame. Fame has become the main aspiration in British society, mostly with the vain hope that a paycheck can somehow be eked out by simply being 'you.' It used to be that people wanted to be famous for something, now they just want to be famous (try asking the average fameseeker why they want to be famous - I'd be surprised if you get a quantifiable response). The reality is that most people aren't going to become famous, so instead the next best thing is for people to surround themselves with the trappings of fame - shiny, expensive objects.
Britain has become a society based on the deification of possessions - the rioters aren't looking for fairer representation or job creation, they're looking for flat-screen televisions and new trainers. This is what they have become socialised to want, neatly bypassing all political process.
The current overwhelming social aspiration is 'must have nice stuff.' The classic route to this would have been get an education, get a job, save some money, buy the nice stuff. However, we now have a situation where there aren't enough jobs, or at least that's the perception. So instead of buying the things people view as indicators of success (flatscreen TVs) people are going straight to obtaining it by whatever means necessary. Couple this with the quality of education going down (yet becoming more expensive with EMAs being axed and university tuition fees going up) and steady cuts to numbers of police officers over the past decade and we have a worryingly permissive situation for social entropy.
This has played itself out as kids taking to the streets because they don't see the property they're smashing up as belonging to people who have worked hard to build businesses. They see it as stuff they can just take because they want it. But these riots are only the symptoms of what is wrong in our society - not the disease. The disease is a complete lack of social responsibility and societal attachment.
It's too much to hope for that this will cause industry, the media and our government to focus on a positive path out of the culture we've helped create. There won't be a sudden turnaround to focus on creating jobs and innovation in growth industries (clean energy or medical technology) that would turn us away from a service economy. The sort of change that would also necessitate an improved school system that teaches kids how to add, understand the building blocks of our universe and teach them to critical reasoning. We're beyond charismatic politicians and silver bullets. But can we at least look at whether we're happy with the society we have now?
While I don't expect a sudden period of self-reflection after these riots, I hope that there will at least be some effort to understand the systematic inequalities that have pervaded British society in the last twenty years. We need to look at access to quality education, a lack of good parenting and why a materialistic culture is all we have to offer the globe. Maybe we could think about some of that instead of focusing on the return of Big Brother on Channel 5.
Author's note: It's worth pointing out that for a lot of people Britain is synonymous with England - leaving out the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish. For the purposes of this article I've used Britain as a catchall term meaning more generally the UK. I don't really think any of the home nations are exempt from the societal problems expressed above. I also love Jimmy Page, it wasn't his fault.
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