Graeme Baker: The riots were mindless, but not without reason

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Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that "there is no such thing as society". Two decades later David Cameron decided this was a mistake, claimed to be forging a "Big Society", and then set about dismantling the very things that hold it together.

I watched from afar as two London streets I have lived in were burned and looted. The pictures were shocking, and more so for their familiarity, but what was equally shocking to me was the chorus dismissing the riots as "mindless", as if that was all that was needed as an explanation.

Yes, what we were watching was indeed mindless, and indefensible. But that does not account for the fact that there were many issues that sparked the fire.

British politicians have espoused neo-liberal dogma for the best part of 30 years. A dogma based on consumerism and selfish individualism over shared responsibility.

And Britain, after 30 years, is a society more divided than at any other time since World War II. The haves have grown in wealth while the have-nots have grown in number.

Social dissonance is no coincidence. Cameron's nebulous ideal of "Big Society" - that communities are stronger than the government in sorting problems out - has yetto prove of worth.

And so, in a time of austerity and a global recession lasting years, when people see their opportunities narrowing, services cut and the disappearance of the things they have for decades been told to expect, this is what happens.

Many have said that the rioters care nothing for their community or future. Where does one find a future? There are 400-odd unemployed people for every job advertised in Tottenham, many of those part-time shop or cleaning work for minimum wage.

It now costs about $24,000 a year just to study at university in England. Apprenticeships are near-impossible to secure, because youth training is at a low ebb.

As one man told the Guardian: "It's bloody hard for them. There's nothing to do at all.

"University fees have gone up, education costs money. And there's no jobs. This is them sending out a message."

Cuts, austerity, crime and decay. This is what many people in London live with.

I have been told that the rioters should think themselves lucky they do not live in Syria, Africa or some other despotic Third World hell-hole.

But why should anything above such a terrible baseline be considered "lucky"?

Should those in Britain living with poverty and 50 years of nothingness ahead of them consider themselves "lucky" because people half a world away are subject to violent dictatorship? No.

My generation was lucky.

University was affordable, social mobility was a reality, and just over a decade ago I entered an economy that worked. The situation young people find themselves in today is the very antithesis of the word "lucky".

The methods of the rioters were base and indefensible but it is undeniable that the riots are, for the most part, the result of society's breakdown.

It is no irony that a country which has pursued consumerism and social nihilism has been blighted by people who - when it all goes wrong - believe in and respect nothing except consumer goods.

While the streets have been cleaned, the problems have only been swept under the carpet.

The menace, enmity and ennui will remain and if nothing is done to alleviate it, Britain must expect more to follow.

Graeme Baker is the Herald's news editor. He is English and lived in London for eight years.

- NZ Herald

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