Saturday, 13 August 2011


The last few days have been deeply depressing and I didn't really know whether it was something I felt qualified to write about. The level of disorder in England - and my own home town of Birmingham - has provoked sorrow, grief and anger.

These aren't concepts normally covered in what is meant to be a light and fluffy blog filled with whimsy and nonsense. And, to be honest, I'm a little removed from it all, in my middle-class, middle-aged, suburban supreme isolation. The nearest I get to urban deprivation is Tesco's own-brand breakfast cereal.

But as I sat watching the updates on Monday and Tuesday I saw how people were reacting. Status updates on Facebook are amazing, aren't they? You get to see everyone's immediate thoughts. And then there are comments on blogs, Twitter posts and the rest. People were scared and angry.

Me? I felt all of those emotions, too. I love my country. England is a still a great place to live. We get along, by and large. What we've seen over the last week or so is, in the main, unrepresentative. But it happened, and we need to be grown-up about it and look into why it did.

Some things are inalienable. I hardly think I need to say this, but for the avoidance of doubt I will anyway: what we saw happening on our streets was criminal activity. No ifs, no buts. The people responsible for it need to be found and should face the full force of the law.

But at the same time as there was panic on the streets, there was a clash between those expressing opinions from behind keyboards the length and breadth of the country.

At one end of the spectrum we had people clamouring for action. I saw comments asking for armed troops on the streets and, even further, a shoot on sight policy. Hang 'em high. Crack some skulls. Let's see our streets running with the blood of  rioters. It will make a point.

This country thankfully doesn't have many examples to draw from, but it is a fact that we don't have a great history when it comes to armed troops on the streets.

The lurch towards martial law is something we've seen and condemned in other countries. Is it really something we want here? Norway saw 92 people massacred recently and vowed to learn lessons. We lose a few branches of JD Sports and want to embrace death squads.

I mentioned earlier that there was a spectrum of views. At the other end, we saw people quick to make a political point. These riots were a form of protest, it was said. It's about the Tory cuts. Somehow this is a continuance of the uprisings we've seen in North Africa already this year - people joining up to make a point against an unpopular government.

I'd have some sympathy with this view if it wasn't for the fact that this activity didn't appear to be aimed against the instruments of State; rather it was directed towards retailers. Last time I checked, Richer Sounds wasn't a government department. And many that bore the brunt weren't even very corporate; it was the local newsagent, 24-hour minimarket, family-run furniture store.

So I can't subscribe to the 'protest' point of view either. I fall somewhere in between these two extremes. It's not easy having opinions that don't fit into the normal left vs. right arguments.

One thing we have to do - and this seems to be a deeply unfashionable view - is to learn from this. I say it's unfashionable because many of those baying for punishment believe that looking for explanations is the same as condoning violence.

It really isn't. If your house floods, you look for reason why, to prevent it happening again. Trying to explain the flood isn't condoning water.

What seems to be clear is that there is a section of society that doesn't act in the same way as the rest of us. It's not just a question of poverty - not every poor person was out nicking TVs. People are growing up in environments where the normal boundaries don't seem to apply. Education isn't attractive. Role models might be thin on the ground. The corrosive influence of gang culture is ever-present. Tribal finger-pointing and desk-banging rhetoric won't solve this.

Instead we should consider the words of Tariq Jahan, whose son was amongst three young men killed by a hit-and-run in the heat of the disorder earlier this week. I am proud to share a city and a country with him.

It's not easy. I don't know what the answers are. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

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