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Britain after the riots

‘Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots’ by David Lammy; Guardian Books, 2011. 272pp

Reviewed by Jane Sandeman | 11 October 2012

The death of Mark Duggan in August last year was followed by four days of riots in London, and later Birmingham and Manchester. While many agreed that the riots were nihilistic, opportunistic ‘mugging’ on a large scale, there is also substantial disagreement as to the meaning of the riots and the reasons behind them.

Out of the Ashes by the Tottenham MP David Lammy is one of the more interesting responses. Before looking at what he has to say, it is useful to briefly outline some aspects of the broader response. For the Government, Home Secretary Teresa May initially argued that the riots were pure criminality ‘untainted by higher purpose’. However, it was striking how quickly the Tory analysis shifted to the ‘troubled family’ which has formed the main thrust ever since. For example, in December 2011, David Cameron made a speech in which he declared that ‘a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society.’ What is needed, he argued, is ‘a clear hard headed recognition of how the family is going wrong – and what the family members themselves can do to take responsibility.’ So, on the one hand, the right wing analysis suggests that people need to take responsibility themselves. On the other, however, the Government has launched its Troubled Families programme which emphasises the need for social workers and external bodies to intervene to ‘support’ a specified, identified set of families. This is a contradictory analysis appears both to encourage moral autonomy and to deny it.

What we might call the ‘left’ wing response is exemplified by Camila Batmanghelidjh who has written that the riots represented a natural human response to the brutality of poverty, a view that also came through quite strongly in other reports, including that by the Church of England. In an interesting article in the Guardian, Zoe Williams disputes this perspective, and instead argues that the riots were the outcome of people having their noses constantly rubbed in ‘stuff’ they can’t afford, and having no reason to believe that they will ever be able to afford it. In this sense, the left wing argument is that poverty and the consumer society led to the riots, implying that people are so vulnerable and unable to help themselves that state interventions are needed to help them engage in the most basic aspects of living.

Common to both the right wing explanation that people’s actions are dictated by their misfortune to live within ‘troubled families’, and of the left wing’s view that the riots were the product of poverty and/or the consumer society, is the belief as to the necessity of external intervention to fix the problem. The right, perhaps, sees a more narrow section of society that are beyond the pale and the need for a set of interventions that create a new morality, but you would be hard pressed to find major differences over the central point of the need for intervention.

So what might represent an alternative viewpoint? One of the interesting points made by Williams is her suggestion that ‘this is a generation with a false sense of entitlement created by the victim culture fostered, and overall leniency displayed, by the criminal justice system.’ To my mind, the riots did result from the actions of a section of youth that had no sense of themselves or sense of responsibility for those around them. Indeed, the riots suggested a number of trends that have created a decadent relationship between the state and the individual. There’s the changing nature of the welfare state from a ‘safety net’ to something more akin to a more deeply ingrained means of organising British Society which has had a considerable impact on the relationship between an individual and society. There seems now to be a belief that no individual can be self motivated, and that people are often unable to cope without help from an army of professionals. As the journalist Brendan O’Neill has argued: ‘Today, people’s mental and moral powers are being decommissioned, weakened, undermined, put out to pasture by relentless intervention by the welfare, nanny and psychological states into their lives, constantly telling them how to parent, how to eat, even how to think about themselves and their futures’.

It is in this context of the undermining of people’s self determination that we should understand Lammy’s Out of the Ashes. When it was published at the tail end of 2011, Lammy made the headlines by arguing that parents should be allowed to discipline their children. While this is a useful rejoinder to the debate, it is important to remember that Lammy is actually a product of New Labour and therefore bears considerable responsibility for the creation of a social framework in which fear of the autonomous, self thinking individual has arisen. While Lammy points to a culture of excessive individualism that he says developed from the 1960s onwards, in fact the riots are better understood as the product of New Labour’s systematic destruction of individual initiative and responsibility which have served to create the aforementioned culture of entitlement.

There are a number of arguments in the book that come across as refreshing. Take, for example, Lammy’s claim that parents should be able to smack their kids. In the context of the steady erosion of parental authority over recent years, Lammy’s contribution should be welcomed as a positive argument for parents taking control and responsibility and deciding for themselves how they will exercise authority. Likewise, as Lammy points out, the inquiry into the death (in his own constituency) of Victoria Climbe played an important role in helping to undermine sensible judgement about the relationship of parents to their children – in this case the assumption has been that parents and juries can’t make a distinction between abuse and discipline. An important result has been a wave of official intervention into family affairs and parenting, in which social services assume that parents can’t makes sensible choices as to how to treat their children. In other words, one (admittedly horrific) case has provided the pretext for a much wider re-organisation of services.

However, Lammy’s approach in this section of the book also reveals his true views. He notes that ‘in recent years, parliament has dedicated more time to telling parents what not to do than to offering practical support’ (p.35). Lammy, however, does not appear to genuinely believe that parents can exercise authority themselves, believing they need practical support from official agencies. This in effect is an argument that social services should be recast as family services. Indeed, from birth onwards, Lammy seems quite happy that the state should take on the role of monitoring, nudging, directing new parents as to how to bring up their children. From the minute they know they’re pregnant, he says, mums should go to a Sure Start centre. Similarly enrolling with family services for relationship guidance is seen as a necessity, as is the need to accept advice on smoking, drinking, vitamins intake, and so on and so forth. Indeed Lammy offers no challenge to the idea that pregnant women are defined by their vulnerability, ensuring that this is a time in life when officials start to really dictate parental behaviour.

A similar story emerges in the argument as to the need to extend state support from early years to adolescence. Whereas intervention has in the past tended to focus on the early years, according to Lammy, the real problems come when children grow to become teenagers. In other words, as it is teenagers who have rioted, the conclusion seems to be that intervention has stopped too early, and needs to be extended.

In fact, the reality of this book is to present arguments that almost completely undermine the independence of children as well as adults. Take, for example, the transition from primary to secondary school where Lammy encourages a period of parental leave – because in his view this is when children really need support. In reality, however, the move to secondary school is exactly the time when children start on the road to becoming independent young adults who make their own way in life. Lammy says the parents should take time off because kids of this age are incapable of making such an adjustment – that the transition is too traumatic for them to cope with. In reality his proposals are actually worse than policies hitherto considered. His ideas threaten to restrict and distort the very time in children’s lives when they should be having experiences which help them start to grow up; a point in life when they should start to see themselves as independent is recast as a time of extreme vulnerability. Ultimately, while Lammy pays lip service to a belief in rugged moral individuals, in reality his outlook and proposals assume the opposite.

In conclusion, it is clear that Lammy doesn’t believe that human beings are capable, let alone morally autonomous. Every solution is one that assumes the need for professional assistance with no understanding that people might want to get on with creating their own lives. More than ever, it has become vital to challenge cultural and political view which asserts that we are incapable of making our own decisions and taking responsibility for ourselves.

Jane Sandeman is Convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents Forum, and a speaker at Blaming troubled families: licence to parent? which is part of the After the Riots strand at the Battle of Ideas 2012

‘Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots’ by David Lammy is available at from Foyles