Only hard work, not hard hat photos, can bring real change.
Posted on August 17, 2021
Beyond our imagination. Our worst nightmares made real. I could, of course, be referring to the ninth circle of hell that is Kabul airport or the earthquake that wrecked jerry-built shacks in Haiti or the infernos and floods that are consuming towns and villages in our own European backyard. I could be picking out violations of human rights and bestial actions from China to Mozambique to Nigeria to…..insert name here from your own long list.
I’m not thinking of any of those places, deeply troubling though they all are. I’m imagining a nondescript housing estate on a dull Thursday evening in August. There is a boy. Angry, pissed off with the world, confused, horny and frustrated. He has spent too much time alone on the internet where he has found it easy to locate material to feed his growing prejudices and his skewed view of the world. In this, he’s probably not too different from many young men forming distorted ideas about women and sex – or vaccinations or militias or barmy conspiracy theories.
But this boy has acquired a gun and now, inspired by others who are equally lonely and unfulfilled, he wants to use it. So, while teas are being cooked, TV quizzes lounged over, trampolines bounced on and a dad strolls home with his daughter, he decides that it’s the time to make his mark.
By an unhappy coincidence, this wretched Thursday evening also marks ten years since rioting in our cities subsided. When they had done so, the justice system in England went into heated overdrive. Courts sat through the night and life-changing sentences were sprayed about based on wafer-thin evidence. Politicians, although initially unable to deny the part played by stubborn inequalities in society, soon took to public stages to condemn the riots as ‘criminality, pure and simple’ (David Cameron) and railed against too many people ‘governed by a sense of perverse values’ (Iain Duncan Smith).
This notion of exceptional behaviour is the go-to explanation of most politicians and commentators. They espouse it because it’s quick and easy and feeds our natural needs for reassurance and, of course, furnishes us with blameworthy culprits. But their main reason for doing so is because considering an alternative – that people’s actions, individual or collective, do not occur in a political or social vacuum – would be to open up a cans of worms in which their own deficiencies and inactions would be doing most of the wriggling.
The number of agencies that failed the Plymouth gunboy range from education to social services to the police and all points in between. Every one of those services is underfunded, works under intense pressure and is forced into slipshod decisions, driven by unrealistic time pressures, fatigue, lack of money and scant resources. Vulnerable, unsupported and voluntarily subjecting himself to torrents or unregulated garbage validating his alarming view of the world, he was a tragedy waiting to happen.
In the ten years since the 2011 riots, the budget cuts to youth services, specifically in those areas where disturbances were most severe, are extraordinary. In Haringey, where the arrest and shooting of Mark Duggan prompted the uprising, funding has been slashed from £5.6 million to just under £1 million. Allowing for inflation, this represents a cut of 85%. In Southwark the figure is 82%, in Birmingham, 80% and the national average levels out at 73%. The levels of social deprivation in the areas most affected, even allowing for a degree of gentrification in a couple of London boroughs, remain obstinately high. The principal victims in this glum situation are young people, many of whose lives have been rendered close to intolerable by the pandemic.
I can already hear distant bleating. For the avoidance of doubt, therefore, I’ll make it clear that I’m not suggesting that a lack of access to pool tables results in mass shootings. Nor do I believe that young people took to the streets spurred on by their disapproval of an outdated and alienating school curriculum. But what unites the shooter and the stone-thrower is a biting need to be heard and noticed in a world that makes little sense to them and which holds slim promise of future success. Blunt condemnation of their actions is merely proof positive that everything is shit and that the odds are stacked against them.
Our government of the day jauntily proclaims its total commitment to ‘levelling up’ society, albeit that the glibness of the phrase is bereft, as ever, of coherent, detailed policies to bring this about. Unfortunately for these politicians, photo opportunities in hard hats and hi-viz don’t provide a substitute for the unglamorous, routine, persistent work on dull estates with difficult people living disjointed lives. There’s no front-page picture to be had from trying to squeeze a response from a sullen and defensive adolescent who hasn’t said anything for the last half-hour and, what’s more, ain’t going to.
It’s just over two years since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and promised to ‘fix social care’ once and for all – and that was just about ten years after David Cameron similarly pledged to address this potentially ‘catastrophic’ issue. In this, as with youth services and scathing cuts to all forms of local government, the everyday, unspectacular needs of people on unprepossessing estates in ordinary places around the country remain unmet. Bad people do bad things, sometimes at the extremity of what we could imagine. But such actions don’t come out of a void and skating over this unfortunate truth only invites further disaster.