A week ago Newcastle woke up to a damp, calm morning. Many of our other great cities were smouldering.
We were thankful that people in Newcastle, young and old alike, had decided not to torch their communities, but horrified by the scenes elsewhere.
What could have possessed so many of our fellow citizens to go on such a terrible rampage of violent consumerist acquisition?
Soon we were told the answer. Nothing. Commentators on all sides lined up to say it was mindless violence as judges handed down six month prison sentences for stealing water. The Army, Victorian values and water cannon were the right responses, one parent families and welfare payments the problem.
Anyone attempting a more profound analysis was ‘supporting the rioters’.
I knew this was an attitude that could not last, thank god. As human beings our instinct and our history is to seek to understand.
But there seems to be a visceral fear amongst ‘the overclass’ that to understand is to condone.
Now maybe it is because I am an engineer by background that it is obvious to me that an event may be the consequence of one primary cause (in this case individual decisions) but that other factors may also have a bearing.
Or to turn it around, as a football fan I will give the credit and responsibility for a goal to the striker who scored it but don’t consider it treachery to acknowledge that teammates, the manager or even the weather could have played a part.
But for all those fearful of understanding let me say here that I grew up in an exclusively working class council estate in Newcastle, in a one parent family on benefits with absolutely no consumer goods.
I was sixteen when the riots of 1981 exploded. I would no more have lobbed a brick through the local Diffusion shop than I would have cut off my hand to use as an ashtray.
So I had no sympathy for that small minority of people trying to destroy other peoples’ lives last week.
But I do want to try and understand all the different factors so that I can play my part in preventing a repeat of those terrible scenes. I am glad to see that we are now beginning to have something of a debate, though there are still too many strident voices with simplistic messages.
For me there are two major themes which stand out.
The first is values. In the nineties and the noughties certain influential sections of society fell prey to a kind of cynical post-modernism.
It seemed that we not only forgot what we stood for, we began to think it was not possible to stand for anything.
The Labour Government must take some responsibility for that, values were not part of Cool Britannia. But as a trend it was also fuelled by the media and noticeable in cultural leaders, and even professional groups. As an engineer I saw myself how professional managers sought more and more to impose processes because of a lack of faith in their employees’ good sense and values.
Part of the challenge of course is that in a society like ours with extremes of poverty and wealth, education and ignorance, opportunity and exclusion there will always be differences in values.
But it is critical that as a nation we recognise the importance of values and debate what those values should be.
The second theme is vision. There is no reason per se why the next generation should take on the values of the preceding one. And every generation believes the following one will take the country to hell in a handcart. But to engage, to discuss, to debate even our young people must feel they have a stake in the future of the country, otherwise what is the point?
And it is here that I believe the next generation has a right to feel let down. Where is the vision of our country’s future and young people’s role in it? And particularly those young people who grow up in poverty and on estates where gangs may represent the only effective authority.
The last Labour Government did a lot for young people – investing in schools, targeting deprived areas, introducing the Educational Maintenance Allowance etc. But we did not do enough to reduce the level of inequality in our society, and, as convincingly argued by Wilkinson and Pickett in the Spirit Level, a divided society is a divisive society.
But our failings pale into insignificance when we contemplate this Government’s agenda. Abolishing the Future Jobs Fund and EMA. Tripling tuition fees and turning further and higher education into a free market. Cutting funding to deprived areas. Abdicating all responsibility in industry aside from cutting corporation taxes and regulation. Making the public sector pay for the financial crisis. The list goes on.
The vision for our young people appears bleak. We must be able to deliver a vision that inspires all our young people.
Vision and values are abstract, and they must be implemented through concrete policies. But if we can agree upon them as a nation then we will at least know what we are seeking to achieve.
So why did the North East not riot. We have more than our fair share of poverty. Do we have stronger vision and values?
Well we do have a long tradition of collectivism and strong communities, and the values and vision they represent. They have been eroded by the collapse of traditional industries but I think enough remained last Tuesday night to see us through.
And we do not have the strong gang culture which played a part in organising many of the riots, and whose values promote violence.
And it was raining…
But we must not be complacent. In 1991 there were riots in parts of Tyneside, after two local youths were killed during a police chase. Did the deaths of local people overwhelm community values? Or were our communities weaker than, after years of economic decline and neglect by the Government?
The economic challenges we face under this Government may undermine our communities at just the time we need our shared values to address them. The debate applies just as much to cities that did not riot as those that did.