Sunday, 14 August 2011

A riot of opinion

There's nothing like a riot for getting folk all hot and bothered. Me included. Although it wasn't so much the riots that got to me, as the rash of opinion that followed. Here's David Cameron for instance: is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society. For me the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing I have spoken about for years: it is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society.
People are allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities...

I could feel my hackles rise with every polished syllable that fell from his cherub lips.

More absurd again was a piece I came across by Max Hastings, doyen of the Daily Mail, who called the looters "wild beasts" and likened them to the polar bear that killed the young man, Horatio, in Norway last week.

There have also been, of course, a host of other pieces that more closely reflect my own point of view. I liked those.

And then it struck me that this is exactly the point: the thing everyone agrees on is that the riots show that there is something wrong with society. And everyone has an opinion on what that is, and everyone feels that the riots entirely vindicate their opinion.

The key phrase for me is in the David Cameron quote above: the same thing I have spoken about for years. The riots present people with an opportunity to entrench themselves in long-held opinions and direct righteous outrage at those with whom they disagree. I include myself.

So, let me make a supreme effort, and boy does it pain me to do so... [Pause, wince, OK here we go]: although David Cameron fills me with revulsion, let me suggest that he does in fact have a point. That there are families in this country where the notion of responsibility is misunderstood, has gone missing even. And that we, collectively, need to think about how to respond to that.

These are not profound insights, in my opinion, and it does not become an incredibly privileged ex- public schoolboy to lecture the country on these matters. But let us set these issues aside for a moment and admit that there is a modicum of truth in there somewhere.

There are, of course, far deeper truths to be garnered by listening to other more perceptive social commentators; one might hope that Cameron and company will listen to those before they let their outrage carry them away (but, alas, I fear it is too late for that.) Still, even if Cameron won't do it, at least others can: let's try and listen to other people's opinions before we promote our own as the root of all truth...

(Maybe I'll draw the line at Max Hastings :-)

* * *

At the risk of undermining everything that I just said, let me make one comment about the connection between riots and the cuts.

There have been a lot of services cut in the name of balancing the budget. Perhaps the most regrettable was the ending of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The EMA scheme provided up to £30 a week to help low-income students stay on at sixth forms and colleges; it cost the govenment around £560 million pounds, and had been "proven to work by ever measure available".

Two points on this: First, imagine the difference that £30 a week makes to a 17 year old on some impoverished estate. Now imagine how you might feel if that £30 was taken away from you...

Second, consider the £500 million saving that has been made by scrapping the EMA. Now compare it to any of the big ticket items in the government budget: war in Afghanistan, war in Libya, trident nuclear weapons, bailing out banks, the olympics... In comparison to all of these, the EMA was an insignificant expense. (The olympics, for instance, is costing £9.5 billion, despite an original budget - when they sold it to the public - of £2.4 billion.) And then there's the fact that all of the big ticket items I mention above are at best (the olympics) window-dressing and at worst (all the others) entirely obscene. Whereas the EMA was a manifest force for good.

* * *

Finally, a laugh-or-cry moment. Bernie Ecclestone, owner of Formula 1 and QPR football club, was interviewed on 5 Live last week on the possibility of Premier League fixtures being delayed because of the riots. The interviewer asked him how the riots affected "the image of the country overseas". Bernie said they were "a disaster"!!!!

Bernie, you crack me up!! The jet setting play boy billionaire worries that a couple of days of rioting might adversely affect this country's image! What a patriot.

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