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Riot culture: let’s stop pretending there are any easy answers

11 August 2011

10:22 PM

11 August 2011

10:22 PM

I had a call from a researcher on the Jeremy Vine show this week to ask me to go on and
talk about the riots. Would I be prepared to say that shopkeepers should not be closing their shutters early and that we should all be reclaiming the streets. I had a vision of being set up against
a poor shopkeeper afraid of having his livelihood destroyed. So I used those words every radio and TV researcher dreads to hear: “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” I
could almost smell his disappointment over the line. I explained that I wasn’t just a political journalist, I also ran a charity which had been running a pop-up shop in north London. Just
that afternoon we had decided to shut early because we felt it was important to protect the staff and let them get home before the evening. At the same time, I said I thought it was important for
people to show solidarity and that some sort of reclaim the streets march, as suggested by Sarfraz Manzoor, was something I felt I could sign up to.

I can’t help thinking that the confrontational approach of most news outlets has not been helpful in this situation. Deborah Orr was right to say that we should put aside petty political squabbles. Watching politicians knock chunks out of each other is very
unedifying, as the Harriet Harman/Michael Gove and Diane Abbot/Sayeeda Wardi arguments on Newsight have shown this.

This should be contrasted with the discussion between former Cameron speech writer Danny Kruger and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, whose article on the psychology of the riots everyone should read.

I have had the pleasure of working with Danny and his excellent Only Connect charity. He is someone with the political courage to put the
philosophy of the Big Society into action. His discussion with Zoe Williams was sometimes heated and there was no doubt they disagreed about what should be done, but at least they were talking
about solutions.

I appeared opposite Fraser Nelson on the BBC News Channel this week and, as often happened when I was at the New Statesman, we found much to agree on. For instance, we agree that David Cameron has
found his cause, the riots illustrate his “broken Britain” thesis perfectly. Where we disagree is on the solutions. I do not share Fraser’s faith in the government’s school and welfare
reforms, which I believe are a form of right-wing utopianism. They might work, but it’s a stab in the dark. I believe a more general youth policy is necessary, with the new Work Programme and
apprenticeships geared to making young people employable.

But again, at least we were discussing solutions.

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