Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Putting the riots in context

The first thing that occurred to me when I heard about the riots was that this has happened before. There were riots in the 1830s over the Corn Laws and the need for parliamentary reform. The flames of Bristol burning after the 1831 riot could be seen from Cardiff. Rioters tore down the jail, freed the prisoners and burnt a large number of houses.

Research by The Guardian has shown that there is a strong statistical link between government austerity measures and outbreaks of unrest (riots, revolutions, and so on). We must see these riots in the context of the widening gap between rich and poor (notwithstanding a few high-profile cases of rich people joining in with the looting), the scandalous facts that the bankers have got away with wrecking the economy and the parliamentary expenses scandal has resulted in very few MPs being imprisoned for fraudulently claiming for their extravagant lifestyles. Clearly the looters are simply emulating the bankers and MPs.

It is of course very sad that people were killed in the riots, and the murderers must be brought to justice. But the disproportionate punishments meted out to some people involved in the riots seem ill-considered and likely to fan the flames of unrest. Right-wing social commentators have sought to blame poor parenting, single mothers, and the usual list of tired clich├ęs.

There clearly has been some sort of breakdown in values, but it is not confined to the rioters and looters. The moral bankruptcy of the MPs and the banks is merely a middle-class version of the more blatant tactics of the looters. One looter, when asked what she thought she was doing, said that she was getting her taxes back. This implies that there has been a breakdown in the social contract - the consensus that we pay taxes and the government represents us and delivers services.

Many people remarked on the role of social media in spreading the unrest - but people managed to riot just as much without social media in previous centuries. The Luddites who smashed machinery in the 18th century did not have social media. In fact, it was heartening to see how social media (especially Twitter and blogs) was used to comment on and discuss the riots, and to gather people together to clean up after the riots.

What can we do as religious liberals in response to the riots? We must keep trying to build community and counteract the effects of social exclusion. The efforts of Bolton Street Angels (an initiative of which Bolton Unitarians are part), of Oldham Unitarians in helping asylum seekers, and of many other Unitarians up and down the country, are the sort of thing we need more of. The lack of cool places for youth to hang out in (since most youth clubs were closed) must be a contributory factor in the disaffection of youth. The prospect of unemployment and homelessness looms large for increasing numbers of the population as the gap between rich and poor grows wider. The increase in the activities of far-right groups such as the English Defence League is also disturbing, and we must join with other liberal groups to present an alternative view. We must also put pressure on the government to recognise that compassion and equality should be the central values of our society and its response to these riots and the the worsening economic situation, not retribution and increasing inequality.