The dark heart of England

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Aug 09 2011.   By Heather Mallick, Star Columnist

To understand the London riots, you have to understand the nation itself, what it has become and its struggle to repair itself. It is a story of almost unrelenting grimness. It’s why I doubt London’s capacity to host a peaceful 2012 Olympics while Tory Prime Minister David Cameron’s cuts to public spending start to bite hard.

A map of the violence that spread across England’s nastier bits would explain a lot: Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leeds and some of London’s most rundown areas, including Tottenham and Croydon. Tottenham is so dire that I didn’t dare venture there on a visit recently to see Spurs play in their home stadium.

These places are dirt-poor in ways that would be comprehensible only to native Canadians on our reserves. They’re the bits of England you don’t hear from — London’s energy and culture send out a happier message — but the fact is that England’s heart is dark.

Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth about Hidden Britain was the title of a book by Nick Davies (the journalist who essentially broke the News Corp. phone-hacking story) on the nation you don’t hear about. “This hidden country is a sprawling collection of battered old housing estates, of red-light areas and inner-city ghettos, of crack houses and . . . all the other refuges of our social exiles. To put it more broadly, it is the place where the poor gather.”

His book is the modern version of Henry Mayhew’s 1851 Victorian shocker, London Labour and the London Poor. Britain is gasping. The middle class is a fragile aberration and the upper-middles live in glass houses.

The human violence of the riots was shocking but what struck me was the looting. We saw looting in the Vancouver riot and used “deindividuation” or the anonymity and excitement of crowds to explain it. Those kids did not need what they were stealing.

But the London rioters were leaving cheap shops with carts of track shoes and flash clothes, smiling for the cameras. Yes, it was stuff they couldn’t afford but still, why risk imprisonment? Because they had nothing to lose.

I do not excuse here, but attempt to explain. If you have a job or one day dream of having a job, you cling to a respectability that might pay off eventually. But there will never be jobs for these people. You cannot scare them.

Margaret Thatcher sold off public housing without envisioning what would replace it, which was . . . nothing. Then her Big Bang turned London into a financial speculation factory churning out huge bonuses, house prices exploded, people who had bought their fairly awful houses from the government were suddenly rich, and they rented them out, which helped rents soar.

Labour kept things nodding along with a welfare system that Cameron is killing. Even London’s Tory Mayor Boris Johnson has called it “Kosovo-style social cleansing,” with visions of families exiting London to camp by the side of the road because the rent money went on food. For London is one of the world’s most painfully expensive cities.

Try living there on welfare benefits. Imagine losing them and spending your days in a state of semi-controlled desperation.

How do you feed your last grain of self-esteem? You riot, you shame yourself before the world, you steal junk that makes you feel posh, you are filmed pretending to help a bleeding boy while stealing from his backpack, you do disgusting things.

When arrested, you will perhaps not even be able to articulate your reasons for doing these things. You broke windows and took what you thought you needed or were entitled to.

So what are the needs of others? Michael Ignatieff once wrote an entire book, The Needs of Strangers, speculating on that need. No wonder we exiled him. Nobody cares about the poor, especially when they turn thuggish and ungrateful. Why even bother to speculate about what they do?

It’s easier to report on the flames and who lit the fire. But why did they light the fire in the first place?

And the fire next time?

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