A tale of two societies
23 August, 2011

Apparently, recent lawlessness was caused by the following: lack of legitimacy of the Coalition government, government public sector spending cuts, the failure of multiculturalism, the fostering of welfare dependency under New Labour, the deep-seated malaise of disenfranchised urban communities and the wanton destruction of thieving, feral youth. Clear as mud then. But whatever the cause, politicians and commentators seem united on the fact that something is deeply wrong with British society.

But is that really the case? A YouGov poll this week suggested a very different conclusion to the dominant political and media narrative. Asked whether they thought their own community and surrounding area was ‘broken’, only around a third of the British public agreed. Not only is that number surprisingly low so soon after the riots, it has actually fallen since 2009. Nationally we are much more pessimistic – three quarters of us think society is broken. That stat hasn’t changed since 2009, but nor, interestingly did it change in the immediate aftermath of the riots.

The national line about a broken society is only part of the truth. Only a handful of places were affected, with even many parts of London relatively quiet. I don’t want to downplay the very real impact of the riots – the Dirty South pub in Lewisham is at the end of my road, so I was one of many people who spent several nights in with the doors locked and the curtains drawn. But it’s important that we don’t mistake an astonishing outpouring of violence for a general social malaise. As NLGN’s recent work on the Big Society showed, lots of places across Britain have high levels of belonging, cohesion and social activism. Our data show that around a third of us might even be prepared to mentor one of the many young offenders who’ve been created by the riots. Not all of the these places are in the leafy shires.

And although David Cameron can’t say it, the recent rioting and looting may actually show that building the Big Society is not a pipedream.

What we’ve seen in the aftermath of rioting has been a positive response from many communities – the ‘I love Peckham’ post-it note wall, riot wombles in Clapham, voluntary street cleaning in Chalk Farm – all surely perfect examples of what the Prime Minister would like to become the norm as communities respond to public service spending cuts.

The response from the political class was the usual mixed bag. Nationally, the parliament recall looked like a sop to MPs and national leaders who really had nothing to offer riot stricken areas except the usual knockabout between left and right. Boris Johnson put in a lacklustre performance, raising questions about whether the coalition’s plans for elected police commissioners will make much difference (he effectively already does the job for Londoners). And a handful of local leaders put in strong performances – notably Croydon’s Mike Fisher – before finding themselves stymied by a lack of power.

The next steps are pretty obvious. Punish the rioters, crack down on gangs and then start the slow process of rebuilding affected communities. Local government cannot stop a riot once it has begun, but it can remove the conditions that start them in the first place. Whitehall can help this complex process by letting communities themselves set priorities and allocate resources, rather than having civil service silos do it for them.

Whilst we work through the problems of the most troubled communities, it would be remiss and counter-productive not to recognise and celebrate communities that did not riot – that remained coherent and which offer hope for the future. The national psyche may be damaged as a result of what happened in the last few weeks, and wall-to-wall news coverage and shocking visuals of people jumping from burning buildings are seared into the collective memory and can hamper rational debate.

Yes, we as a country have issues to confront that we’d perhaps rather not, but in the face of querulous calls to the contrary, we need to tackle societal problems community by community. Society is neither big nor broken – it is a construct of thousands of unique communities with an identity and life of their own. Individual societies might be damaged, but to say that British society is broken misses the point.

Simon Parker, Director, NLGN