It took a Riot. This was the name of possibly the best-entitled cabinet paper ever submitted to a government. It was drawn up by Michael Heseltine after the Toxteth and Brixton riots of the early 80s. It advocated not a policing response to an earlier version of the breakdown of law and order in UK cities but a political and economic response.
Modern British urban regeneration , and the massive reinvestment we saw in UK cities in the last 25 years, was that response. Both the Cameron government and Ed Miliband should dust off Heseltine’s paper and have a look at it again because it’s a better response to our urban crisis than I’ve heard from either of them in the last week.
Somehow I doubt that they will. The non metropolitan one nation conservatism which Heseltine embodied – influenced strongly in my view by his being Welsh and from Swansea – has few followers in today’s Tory Party. Meanwhile Mr Ed is too worried by what the Daily Mail or floating voters might say to say anything other than that the police need more resources. Heseltine’s point was that whole areas of the UK needed extra resources, economic uplift and social transformation– and that It Took a Riot for us to realise we had left these places go to rot.
I recall there being little in It Took a Riot about the source of the problem of urban Britain being the survival of Original Sin or indeed the revival of Primordial Evil. It set out a calm analysis and a programme for intervention. Almost three decades later we could do worse than revisit it. Not for its programme but for its spirit and determination that something could and should be done to re-animate and include these lost places back into the nation.
‘Regeneration’ , for all the flaws in that programme and that concept, was the response of a part of the British political elite a generation ago. Not just denunciation and denial. Action, imagination and investment. And our cities were brought back from the edge. Where is a renewal of this spirit to come from today? Heseltine at least gave the impression that these places and communities mattered and were integral to the nation. Sorting them out was the basis of national renewal and needed a comprehensive set of interventions rather than merely a police or a welfare response.
Now all the political elite see is a criminal underclass needing a cosh and vindictive welfare ‘reform’. The first eviction from social housing of the mother of an 18 year old rioter is under way as I write.
We need to do better than this. Demonising and punishing rioters is an inevitable first wave response but it won’t suffice. An emotional spasm is scarcely ever a good basis for effective public policy.
We need to understand more of not just how this happened but what it is that happened. I do accept that there has been a fundamental break down – but not in the morality of rioters. Many ordinary, blameless people throughout history can in the wrong place, at the wrong time, become rioters. Opportunity and contingency usually characterise the moment of rioting and indeed looting. The contingent fact in the current UK riots was the uselessness of police tactics. The primary break down has been in the moral order itself. Those bankers and politicians who have looted the country and got away with it have effectively destroyed the legitimacy of the rule of law.
I’m not aware of a single UK financier who having defrauded clients and bankrupted the national economy has paid any penalty. Most have not even lost their jobs or bonuses let alone their freedom for their criminal and anti-social behaviour. At the same time the rest of society is paying the price in slashed public services and increasing worklessness.
Does no-one think these matters go un-remarked or have no influence over the behaviour of the lesser orders? The moral order is essentially a contract between elites and the rest, the rulers and the ruled. Lehman’s and Goldman Sachs ripped up that contract long before the 13 year olds of Hackney started stealing trainers from JD Sports 75 yards from my flat in Hackney.