The Grantham Journal made for interesting reading this week. Lots of local stories, concerns over bus routes and controversy over disabled parking amongst other things.
However, what stood out for me most was the sudden outburst from Cllr. Richard Davies, Conservative County Councillor for Grantham North-West.
For those that have not had a chance to read it, you can read it here.
Cllr. Davies is attempting to blame the recent riots on a culture of dependency that he feels is “destroying Britain”. This is from the same logic that says that all rioters should face eviction from their council house, they should lose their benefits even if they are not jailed, and that the people committing these acts were simply unable to distinguish between what is right or wrong. All these arguments may seem popular but they simply fall down when put up against just a few of the facts that have come out from the civil unrest.
One of the first people to be charged with an offence relating to this civil unrest was a 31-year-old teacher, who did not live in a council house, did not claim benefits of any sort and given the nature of his role, was clearly able to distinguish right from wrong. As time went on, more and more people who were full-time workers, paying their own way in the world, not claiming any sort of subsidy from the state, were being charged with offences related to the unrest.
I agree there were a percentage of unemployed people and council home tenants that were also involved in the riots, and they will be charged in the same way. But to draw a narrative that they were solely responsible is as irresponsible and factually incorrect as saying that the riots were started by minorities or by Islamic extremists.
Unfortunately, Cllr. Davies rhetoric is very similar to what we are hearing from the Conservative-Led government. Terms such as “deserving poor” and a return to the “traditional family” are entering into the mainstream dialogue with little concern to what they actually mean.
“Deserving poor” is a reversal of the historic phrase “undeserving poor” which was coined in the 18th and 19th century. The “undeserving poor” consisted of what was considered the lower echelons of the working class such as prostitutes, ex-convicts, ex-soldiers suffering mental disorders etc. These people were considered undeserving of support or education, therefore were condemned to a life of squalor and poverty.
To flip this into the “Deserving poor”, the definition is “people who are poor but have good qualities and are not responsible for having little money”. I would be interested in who Cllr. Davies feels falls into this category. Who does he feel are not responsible for having little money? Maybe he would like to take some of his constituents, line them up and classify them into “deserving” and “undeserving”? Using this kind of terminology to classify who deserves support and who does not causes divisions. It feeds the animosity that some have towards those who need support or who are vulnerable.
In 2007, Ross Wynn-Jones wrote about an experience he had on a North Peckham estate, where he was given a tour by a 14 year old girl who was a member of a female gang. The full article can be seen here, but I quote:
“In the week I spent visiting the estate, the girl became a kind of volatile guide, turning up every day and hanging around and asking questions and then storming off in a rage. After a friend of mine had been mugged close to the estate and terrorised by a girl gang, I asked whether she ever felt anything for the people she mugged with her gang of girlfriends.
“No,” she said. “The way I see it, no one ever gave a fuck when my mum got kicked down every flight of stairs in our tower block. And no one ever gave a shit when I went into care. So don’t expect me to give a fuck for anyone else.”
Yet she clearly did. She radiated loneliness. The problem was a gap in experience – how to explain to people that this girl in a hoodie, with a face made ugly by violence wasn’t all she seemed on the surface. That life had made her that way.
You knew that even the photograph of her, in a dirty tracksuit, would immediately bring up the label ‘undeserving’. There was the sense that the purpose of the piece had simply been to stare at the poor as if it were a Bedlam sideshow”
The opportunity that the Conservatives and Cllr. Davies see here is to use the civil unrest to unleash an outdated ideology where people who need welfare support are seen as scroungers. Where a so-called “underclass” can be blamed for all the ills of society. To claim that British society is “broken”.
What they fail to recognise however, is that the vast majority of the country did not riot. The vast majority of society did not become lawless. The vast majority of society, including those who are unemployed or in receipt of welfare support, did not condone the actions of people who rioted.
So I ask Cllr. Davies and the Conservative-Led government to consider this before making such rash comments.
“Traditional family” is also one of those phrases that raises all sorts of questions. What is Cllr. Davies exactly referring to when he calls for a return to the “traditional family”? The popular interpretation of this phrase is a two parent family, a mum and a dad, working hard, staying happily married until they die, providing love and support to their children for the whole of their lives. And who could argue that would not be a supportive and loving environment to bring up any child?
However, when we start changing things a little, for example substituting that dad with another mum, having a child brought up by their dad on their own, a gay couple adopting a child, or a girl getting pregnant at 17, the father abandons her child, but finding the strength and the support to bring up their child with an incurable illness into an intelligent, polite little boy. Are these environments any less supportive or loving, and will these children be any less successful than they would have been if they lived in a “traditional family”? For every child brought up in an environment which Cllr. Davies considers to be ideal, I can point to numerous children and parents who have made successes out of their lives, who are making real contributions to society and who are avoiding crime and poverty, yet they have come from broken homes, suffered abuse or come from second or third generation welfare dependent families.
The key to turning around these situations is aspiration. If someone has something to aspire to, and knows how to achieve it they will move hell and high-water to achieve it.
The riots of recent weeks showed the worse of society. The hijacking of genuine demonstrations by a few intent on violence. Then the escalation of violence and crime as the police struggled to contain it. The fear of getting caught evaporating, the mob mentality pervading through the streets of London and other major cities. Criminal acts occurred, they should be arrested and charged. Sentences should be appropriate, sentences that fit the crime and also help restore pride to the community.
However, society’s ills are not as simplistic as Cllr. Davies and his Conservative colleagues make out, and solutions are not to be found with “less welfare, more prisons”. Such a philosophy should be consigned back in 19th Century from whence it came.
We should not give up on segments of society by simply withdrawing welfare support and locking them up. This is not the sign of a progressive society that is intent on ensuring that all citizens can achieve their ambitions. Welfare is there to support the needy and the vulnerable. Government, both local and national, is responsible for ensuring that all members of society have the opportunity to achieve their potential. Society has the responsibility to ensure that the majority voice is heard.
Together, they are the most effective recipe for a prosperous and successful Britain.