By CHRIS GRAEME [email protected]
In the late 1970s, at the height of the punk rock phenomenon, a little-remembered cult film directed by Derek Jarman, called Jubilee, hit the cinema screens.
The film showed Elizabeth I asking her court astrologer and fortune teller John Dee to look into the future to the reign of Elizabeth II for a glimpse of late 20th century London.
The visions were of anarchy, mayhem, lawlessness, riots and gang warfare on the streets of London’s inner city areas. Even Buckingham Palace had been turned into a disco.
It was a piece of bizarre artistry which seems now to have proved chillingly accurate.
Most of the yobs involved in the mindless violence in London, which then spread to Liverpool, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester and other parts of the UK over the past week, belong to loosely organised gangs who launched a concerted and coordinated attack on the cities using sophisticated mobile technology such as Blackberries as well as social networks on line.
At the same time, Britain’s police, devoid of water cannon (bizarrely they are not used in mainland Britain), tasers and tear gas, seemed impotent to act.
I cannot imagine David Cameron’s predecessor Margaret Thatcher would have stood for such mindless nonsense in the heart of the nation’s capital, during the busy tourist season and just 12 months away from the London Olympics.
Thankfully the prime minister has interrupted his annual holiday in Tuscany to deliver a strong message to the arsonists, looters and vandals: that crime doesn’t pay and the strongest punishment will be meted out.
But it will take more than just words from David Cameron. The population of the UK want to see real results in bringing peace and order back to their cities’ streets.
The announcement to deploy 16,000 policemen to London and cancel police holiday is a start, but tougher measures will invariably be needed.
The first and most immediate observation is that no matter what the considerable social and economic difficulties these youths from poor and problematic backgrounds face, mindless violence and anarchy can never be the answer. Violence just breeds more violence.
The government needs to stand firm here and support its police force, passing emergency legislation to allow it to take back control of the streets from these kids, many from broken one-parent families, with low educational levels, no prospects, living on benefits and no sense of social responsibility or ambition in life.
If it continues, the army may need to be called in – although if we have an army left in the United Kingdom after so many cuts and troops have been deployed around the world in peace-keeping efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, I wonder – curfews established and arrests made.
But when peace is finally restored, and it will be, politicians, academics, sociologists and society as a whole will need to ask some more fundamental questions as to why this happened in the first place.
The overriding question is why did this happen in one of the world’s richest cities?
In my 20s I worked as a reporter in Lewisham, Woolwich, Plumstead, Catford and Greenwich, and saw first hand the huge social problems that blighted these areas. In some cases, the police didn’t even dare go into some of the more problematic sprawling council estates which they themselves admitted were no-go zones.
The answer, I suspect, is complicated and many fold. At the heart of the problem is undoubtedly high unemployment and poor prospects. We have lived through 30 years of neo-liberalism in which the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. It has clearly failed.
The kind of wanton capitalism seen in America and Europe since the 1980s, where speculation and obscene bonuses seemed the norm, where corrupt politicians, bankers, newspaper proprietors, the police and even MPs can act as they like and get away seemingly scot free, does not send a responsible message to our nations’ youth.
The kind of crooked and irresponsible ‘laissez fairism’ that emerged from the United States and Britain and culminated in the crash in 2007 and the austerity measures now being exacted to pay for it, only encourage these youngsters, mostly teenagers but also children as young as nine years old, to emulate their so-called ‘betters’ in society: to pillage and rob the rest of the population at a more basic and primeval level.
It’s because young people have no role models, no hope and no future. They see the way their elder peers in society behave, subconsciously rebel and react accordingly. And for those who sneer that “this will never happen in Portugal, the Portuguese are a peaceful and ordered people”, I wouldn’t be so sure.
Talk to any Lisbon taxi driver – they usually have more wisdom and are more in tune with the feeling at grass roots level than anyone else – they will tell you that a leaderless country with corrupt, decadent and weak politicians, crooked business leaders on breathtaking bonuses robbing the pensioners and poor blind, is enough for any youth to turn and behave in such a way, no matter how misguided.
But then our selfish society is misguided, rotten to the core. And in this you cannot blame the youth of today…they are simply looking to their elders and betters for their cue!
In short, our money-driven society has failed its youth; not just in the United Kingdom but all over Europe and the United States. When the western world is run by Neros, is it really surprising that our cities now are burning?