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What the UK Riots Mean

August 11, 2011

As Premier I remember one evening touring public housing estates. I ended up at Coogee talking to a youngster who growled and snarled about the need for a basketball court. I told him he might have a case, but in the meantime he was living within walking distance of Coogee and Maroubra beaches, people would pay a lot of money for such a location and if he liked sport he ought to think about joining one of the surf clubs. “No,” he growled. “They make you go on patrol.” And he continued to spit anger and resentment, and whinge.

I saw that exchange as confirmation of the welfare dependency that sometimes goes with public housing. Sometimes – not all the time, I should stress. It’s my starting point for considering what has been happening in Britain.

I can’t go along with the facile response that the violent attacks on people and property are occurring because of the Conservatives cutting “youth services.” How many of the rioters would be rolling along to “youth services” anyway? There was a riot in public housing estates near Liverpool in Western Sydney. This was in the context of strongly funded youth services and abundant local sporting facilities. “Services” had nothing to do with it. As Premier I was quick to point out the offenders would not be getting anymore as a result of attacking police and damaging property.

Despite Conservative governments, Britain has remained a welfare state, and the welfare state has got to be considered a large part of the problem. That’s why I like the reforms of the Gillard government designed to get people off disability pensions and into the workforce. Pause for a moment and think about the view of the world absorbed by kids growing up in households where nobody has ever worked, where every adult lives on a benefit, where housing is a gift of the state. They never see a Dad getting up when an alarm clock rings and heading off to work.

On what’s happening to Britain, I find myself drawn away from the liberalism of the Guardian to the tough commonsense of the doctor turned journalist Theodore Dalrymple, whose columns in The Spectator were once the best dose of radicalism in the British media. He observes today in his column in The Australian:

British children are much likelier to have a television in their bedroom than a father living at home. One-third of them never eat a meal at a table with another member of their household — family is not the word for the social arrangements of the people in the areas from which the rioters mainly come.

His observation on young women in Britain is deeply offensive. It also has the ring of absolute truth:

For young women in much of Britain, dependence does not mean dependence on the government: that, for them, is independence. Dependence means any kind of reliance on the men who have impregnated them who, of course, regard their own subventions from the state as pocket money, to be supplemented by a little light trafficking.

Finally, Dalrymple celebrates the popular culture that is part of the life of these rioters:

Perhaps Amy Winehouse was its finest flower and its truest representative in her militant and ideological vulgarity, her stupid taste, her vile personal conduct and preposterous self-pity.

Yet not a peep of dissent from our intellectual class was heard after her near canonisation after her death…

Canonisation. Exactly how this pop icon was treated.

Hearing Will Hutton on the ABC’s PM last night I just couldn’t buy the soft centred Guardian-line one bit. Dalrymple makes far more sense. His is the radical and refreshing critique; the conservatives are those on the left who call for more of the same old approaches to welfare. It isn’t working, and more of the same is not the answer.

  1. Anthony Porter permalink
    August 11, 2011 1:05 pm

    Bob, you the Dr. make some interesting points, but what is often overlooked in the analysis of these social problems, is the urban social mix. Generations of family members living in the one area, the urban poor stacked on top of each other in housing estates where social issues fester, and the consequences we see in the riots in London and the Bloc in Redfern and other housing estates in Sydney. If they are really serious about dealing with these issues, they should bulldoze these housing estates, establish housing for these people in areas where they will be influenced by other social groups. Housing estates are nothing better than ghettos for the urban poor.

  2. August 11, 2011 3:14 pm

    Check out this paper on the L.A. riots.

    They find that poverty is not a strong influencing factor. Some of the influencing factors are ethnic diversity, high unemployment, and perceived lack of punishment.

    The formula seems to match perfectly what is being seen in Britain. Ethnic groups with a strong self-identity and high unemployment are sparked by a police altercation. The subsequent low risk of punishment (witness the feckless police response!), high chance of reward (free flat screen TVs for everyone) emboldens them to come out in increasing numbers.

    People clumping in ethnic groups is pure human nature and no government could legislate against that without veering towards flagrant discrimination. Governments can help by keeping employment high in these communities, and making reprisals for anti-social behavior swift and fair.

  3. liz permalink
    August 11, 2011 3:53 pm

    I have read a lot of commentary along these lines. Sure our kids are lucky, they only need look to Somalia to see that.
    I hate this line of thought. As a mother of a teenager I have struggled financially with a mortgage and the rising costs of living; my husband has had several periods between contract jobs, when our family has had no income. It is like walking a tightrope keeping our heads above water and meeting our commitments. Often we barely cover the basics, when it comes to our needs. There is little or nothing left for clothing, entertainment and outings.

    We do not want welfare or Government assistance.

    I have endured school holidays with my teenager and his friends at my home, bored and yearning for something to do. I admired the compassion they share for one another when they pool their meagre resources and buy a tub of icecream to share as a treat.
    My problem is the disparity between them and the more fortunate of their cohort who are on ski trips, going to the movies, headed to Dreamworld or on holiday overseas.
    At times I see these kids also seethe with resentment to society as they feel lesser than their peers, through no fault of their own. This extends to brand name clothing and electronic gadgets and games.

    Let’s tell them that they are lucky that they dont live in Somalia!

    I can see that the problems faced by Great Britain could easily be duplicated here unless something is done to address the disparity!

    • Bob Carr permalink
      August 11, 2011 5:18 pm

      Lots grow up in relative disadvantage but if you work at school and push hard you get a job and do better than your parents. I viewed a working class background as an advantage – an incentive and a driver to do better. There will always be relative disadvantage.

  4. Stephen permalink
    August 11, 2011 4:31 pm


    Avid reader of Theodore. The left, right arguements stand no ground against his valid points made purely upon his experience as a Doctor within the UK prison system.

    The point you raise regarding government’s contract being to create high employment within these areas was made by Theodore in an article for City Journal regarding Tunis riots and those he foresaw would occur in Europe and have now arrived.

    A key passge:

    “No policy could be more dangerous, more certain ultimately to produce a social explosion, than to educate young people for many years and deny them first the opportunity to earn a living that they believe is commensurate with their education, and then the opportunity to earn a living at all. But this is the policy that many countries persist in following on both sides of the Mediterranean. ”

    But as you alude this is not enough. Britain is a welfare state. The desire to work and be part of a family unit of any kind with the social responsibility it brings is not present in this ‘underclass’. And this is not something that has happened overnight as some comments suggets in the The Aus. Rather it is a uniquely English character of a minority. Alas the minority have the majority living in fear. I left a small northern UK market town in 1999 to live in Australia and the many comments received in approving of my decision where due to the coming death of th eUK as it did not have the will to fight this rising tide of ‘what about me’ culture.

  5. Anne O'Brien permalink
    August 11, 2011 5:26 pm

    Bob, the guy probably wanted somewhere in public that he felt he belonged. Maybe he identified more with urban basketball culture and team sports than with surfing. Surfies can be quite territorial and can sometimes be racist, so it’s easy to feel excluded from that subculture. I know that I don’t feel comfortable exercising on beaches when it’s all about the body. I always feel like I’m being watched- and especially shy people can be ultra sensitive to the gaze of others. We all fit into different public niches- one person flourishes in a community garden, another flourishes in cafes, yet another enjoys hanging out in games parlours.

  6. Valli permalink
    August 11, 2011 6:54 pm

    Perhaps your young man was going to get bashed up by the ‘Bra boys if he went down the beach Bob? He wouldn’t be able to tell you that because he’d look like a coward in your eyes. He’d look like a coward n his own eyes.

    There is often a lot more to the story than a casual scratch across the surface may show.

    My understanding of what happened in the UK is that Gordon Brown went to a lot of effort to put programs in place to address poverty. Youth centres were only the tip of the iceberg.

    I was in London for a month last June and I was astounded at the programs being closed down by David Cameron. Youth centres, yes, but also homeless assistance, childcare centres, health, geriatric, disability, drug and alcohol, carers services, education programs, libraries, transport services, funding for charities etc etc.. It was just slash and burn, anything to save money because of the GFC. I was disgusted and very, very grateful to Kevin Rudd for saving us from the same… but I’d better not digress into last June in Australia though had I?

    So. You have a welfare society aimed at giving people a chance at getting ahead.. which was not there before Gordon Brown and life had got a bit better for a lot of people. Then you take it all away. You take all sorts of things away that have always been there. Things that people thought were basic and essential. You raise the fees of universities so people can’t get themselves out, you have created much higher unemployment by closing services, and then you slash dole payments.

    People are pretty unhappy about all this. Many of them are young, spoilt and have a sense of entitlement.. just like our young people in Australia, like kids all over the western world.

    Over time, the types of crime that happen in low-socio-economic areas escalates, then it explodes. Property crime, violence, drug and alcohol. So you add a whole lot more police and give them special powers. You have ‘search with suspicion’ and it gets abused because young cowboy coppers are human and some are racist and some are thugs, so they search young black men every time they see them, strip search them in the street and knock them around while they do it (you know, like happens out where I live in the Western suburbs of Sydney all the time).. then you add ‘search without suspicion’ and they abuse that even more. Then the police stuff up and shoot someone and witnesses say they murdered him… The rest is history.

    That’s my understanding of what happened. If it’s not to happen over and over again they will have to learn from this. Push people too far and they snap. It is NEVER ok, but it is what they do.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      August 11, 2011 8:15 pm

      Good ideas to be considered in the wake of the riots.

      Although I doubt the rioters were attendees at youth centers.

      By the way we all swim at Maroubra Beach. I’ve never heard of bashings in the area ( I live there to this day, in my old electorate ).

    • boy on a bike permalink
      August 14, 2011 1:41 pm

      That’s not exactly true. Most of those services in the UK are delivered by Councils, not the central government. The Councils are under budget pressure, and in acts of pure political bastardry, instead of cutting useless head office functions, they are cutting the most politically sensitive front line services in an effort to blackmail the central government into giving them more money. If it’s a choice between the CEO of a Council downsizing his 7-series company BMW and keeping a library open, they’ll keep the car and burn the books every time.

  7. Allan Black permalink
    August 11, 2011 7:56 pm

    The voice of reason. We turn a blind eye at our peril – or are we too late?

  8. August 12, 2011 5:08 pm

    “Walk a mile in my shoes,walk a mile in my shoes, before you abuse, criticse or confuse,walk a milei n my shoes.”
    The ‘system’ does not always work for eveyone and in many cases no matter how hard you work at school the system outside of school doesn always work for you. That has been my experience in my 30 odd years of being in the workforce. I am 53 have a double degree am articulate and intelligent and highly aware and yet the best thing on offer where I live is driving a bloody taxi! It is enough to make a bloke want to riot! There are many complex factors that determine a persons fate and schooling is probably the least. The social connections a person has has more to do with their social mobility than anyhting else, especially in classist socieities like the UK and to a lesser, but still extant degree, Australia. Politicans have their circles formed when they start out in political parties, themselves filled with the most onerous of human qualities like envy, distrust and sheer bloody mindedness. Other professions have their exclusive and discriminatory clubs with walls so high designed to discourgae rather than encourgae. Constantly hitting these walls and bouncing off them eventually makes peopele want to smash them, that is what those people were doing in the UK, smashing at the walls. It is these walls built by elites as a barrier aginst the commoners that anger these people from every walk of life. When they revolt and rebel the uniformed minions of the law are brought in fullf orce to chase them down and lay heavy burdens on them which only exacerbates the situation and reinforces their notions of the entrenched unfairness of the world and the system off which some garner foturnes while the rest have to scrape as best they can from the crumbs fallig from the rich mans table. Wake up call!! Trickle down economics doesn’t work! To constantly deride them as criminals and hooligans misses the cause as much as the reason for the effect. People need to have pride and the only you get pride is to succeed and the only way to succeed is to have opportunities. In these days of economic uncertainty those opportunities do not exist for many. If you do not have the opportunity to work and get pride in your existence it becomes futile and meaningless. When asked why many of the rioters said that they had nothing to lose. That just about encapsulates their reasoning and it is the situation as they see it. It mught be wise to listen to them and learn rather than just chaisng them down and throwing them in jail.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      August 12, 2011 6:58 pm

      So we increase social security – with no obligations?

      Why is it that Poles and Spaniards and Bulgarians can be recruited to service-sector jobs in London – the jobs are there – but their own lumpen proletariat can’t get drawn into productive employment? Could it be that their education is lousy, their pop culture decadent, their families hopeless and social security payments offer no incentive? Do you believe in more of the same? The welfRe state is obviously part of the British problem

  9. Michael Mizzi permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:15 pm

    They hang the man and flog the woman,
    Who steals the goose from off the common,
    Yet let the greater villain loose,
    That steals the common from the goose.
    — Seventeenth-century English protest rhyme

  10. Michael Mizzi permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:22 pm

    History untold

  11. Michael Mizzi permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:53 pm

    So what do yout think this will cause?

  12. August 15, 2011 2:55 pm

    Every action taken since 2008 has been aimed at defending the financial elite responsible for the crisis. Governments internationally took onto their books some $15 trillion of the losses suffered by banks and corporations—a sum greater than the annual output of the United States. They are now seeking to extract it from the working class amid levels of unemployment and social misery unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

    In the US, the Obama administration has announced $2.4 trillion in cuts to education, food and energy assistance, health care and retirement benefits. More than 1.8 million jobs will be destroyed, adding to the 25 million people already unemployed or underemployed. State governments are closing health services, schools, libraries and even parks.

    Across most of Europe, youth unemployment is well over 20 percent. In Britain, $100 billion in cuts are being made to welfare, housing and social services. In Greece, a second austerity budget will eliminate 150,000 public sector jobs and privatise $70 billion in state assets.

    Such measures, replicated in varying degrees in every developed country, amount to nothing less than a social counter-revolution. Australian business commentator Rob Burgess this month described the process as the “death knell of social democracy”—the end of the period when governments provided “health, pension, education and other programs.”

    This agenda cannot be imposed democratically. In country after country, protests are being met with police repression. As opposition grows, the defenders of the profit system are discussing dispensing with the facade of parliament altogether and ruling through dictatorial means.

    The class war being waged within countries finds its parallel in the eruption of imperialist rivalries between the major powers and the turn to militarism, above all by the United States.

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