Fixing the Broken not Healing the Wounded – a wrong-footed Government response

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

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Our wise leader, David Cameron, clearly being an iconic Philosopher King, spent many days studying the possibly causes for the devastating riots in London and across England. He concluded after much intellectually rigorous pursuit, that the causes of the ‘sickness’ of Britain are – single parents and gangs aka ‘other people’.

Oh well, maybe he didn’t put quite as much thought into his words as I credited him for after all, he’s been toting those policy aims for decades. What more could we expect of him? Complex thought processes and analysis? Don’t be silly, he’s a politician who thrives on sound-bite politics that blames others.

I’m going to share a tiny bit of my own obviously clearly thought through analysis and that is this. There are no ‘easy’ solutions to the endemic problems that created a culture where people feel they can take what they want. This was not about ‘gangs’ although I’m willing to concede that might have been a fraction of one part of a ‘problem’. This is not about single parent families although yes, there may be people who are labelled that way. It seems that when our leaders set about scapegoating some of the voiceless citizens, we are heading for more divisions and damage than healing and unity which is what we really should be seeking. I’m not saying people should not be punished according to the law but they should not have new punishments invented specifically for them just to satisfy the vengence of the middle class who suffered for the first times when Ealing and Clapham burned.

These were Cameron’s words yesterday

Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face … Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback,” Cameron said as he described the violent disorder as a “wake-up call” for Britain.

“Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.”

Setting out his personal priorities for government the prime minister promised he won’t be “found wanting”: “In my very first act as leader of this party I signalled my personal priority: to mend our broken society. That passion is stronger today than ever.”

There’s a lot here to get our collective heads around. A lot of dangerous assumptions and a clear view into the simplistic mind of someone who is supposed to be a leader and has proved himself beyond inadequate for the task.  The Financial Times for example, explains that these riots happened in a period where crime figures had been falling consistency? A moral breakdown? Perhaps not.

Irresponsibility? Like appointing a press secretary whom you have repeatedly been warned not to appoint and to continue to give him ‘second chances’ when you don’t consider second chances for the person who steals a bottle of water.

Selfishness? Like the MPs who gorged themselves on expense claims.

Behaving as if your choices have no consequences? Oh, well, for this one I have to reference the Iain Duncan Smith story from The Broken of Britain

Now, all those platitudes, we get onto the real meatiness that Cameron is gagging for.

Children without fathers? Excuse me? Does he realise how he stigmatises and chastises all the fine families that are raised by a single parent? Does he really think the presence of a man and a woman in a family unit regardless of whether they actually want to be together (the usual reason that splits take place) will ‘help’ the children? He is a fool and it is a dangerous message. Male or female role models do not have to be parents and unhappy parenting is not a useful environment in any circumstances. Cameron has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ family just as he has his ideal of the perfect ‘Chipping Norton’ community. It is damagingly false and it seeks to further stigmatise and alienate those who for very many good reasons, do not conform to his traditional family view. Does he refer to families with two mothers or two fathers or single-father families? What about communities with extended friends as support? He is finding it too easy to paint ‘poor people’ with a brush.

Schools without discipline? Again an easy target. How about actually putting money and effort into the schools that exist then rather than trying to hive them off into ‘free schools’.

Reward without effort? Um.. Mr Cameron.. you know, you with the inheritence of millions. Can you tell us exactly what effort you put into the accident of your birth?

Crime without punishment? – Well, I suppose that depends on definitions but an awful lot of crimes seem to be getting some mightily grand punishments at the moment. Unlike the bankers who ravaged the finances of the nation.

Rights without responsibilities? Dangerous stuff here. See, he has been quoting that awfully subversive Human Rights Act. Possibly because he, in his privileged position would never have need to refer to it.

Communities without control? Interesting one. I wonder what exactly he means. Which communities are these? Poor communities? Communities of people with different minority ethnic backgrounds? Gangs? It’s pretty rhetoric and a nice alliteration but it is meaningless.

You see, I don’t believe Britain is ‘broken’. I think she is functioning as well as she can despite the government though. I think the more that the rhetoric fixes on the ‘sick pockets’ and less on the body politic the more she will begin to sicken though.

Cameron’s ‘solution’ to help to fix (note fix not heal)  this country is to bring in Emma Harrison from Action for Employment as a ‘Families Champion’. Really? That’s a bit patronising and it seems to dictate to us as adult citizens what ‘families’ the government approves of and disapproves of but back to Emma Harrison who has built her millions on the back of the government’s ‘Welfare to Work’ programmes. Is this really a call for more private profit-making?

What message does it send about making money off the back of so-called ‘broken families’ and trying to fix them?

For me, Cameron’s heavy-handed and quite frankly ignorant response to the riots is a sign of a far more broken element of British society. The ruling classes and their detached empathy sensors. That has already caused a lot of damage and is likely to cause far more in the future and we need to be wary of it and try and push the agenda towards healing rather than fixing.

Communities

One word that has come up a lot in the last few days are discussions about communities.

Whether is it ‘affected communities’, or ‘community leaders’ or ‘rebuilding communities’ and it has made me wonder about what the meaning of the word is.

build community

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Also in terms of the work I do, I think about the word and the way it is used in the personalisation agenda about ‘building community capacity’. The government uses community in terms of the ‘big society’, volunteering, giving power to communities, but they don’t really explain exactly what this means excepting the idea that ‘community’ is somehow a Good Thing. Strong communities are good.

So what is a ‘community’?

This is the definition given on Dictionary.com.

1.a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.

2.a locality inhabited by such a group.

3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually preceded by the )

The first two definitions base the term on a geographical location. Your community is the people who inhabit the world around you. The community might be all the people who live within this local area or it might be people of a specific cultural/historical heritage who live within this local area.

I wonder if the idea of splitting apart ‘community’ on the basis of cultural heritage is helpful sometimes.

What is clear is that the meaning of community is very different in Tottenham from  how it is in Chipping Norton.

The word is used in the context of building communities ‘online’. Obviously that comes under the third part of the definition. A community exists within a forum or even within readers of a blog. A community can be a Facebook group or a Twitter stream. We can belong to a range of communities. Some communities though, take more effort to join and be a part of than others.

Some communities we are born into by virtue of location and/or culture and history.

Some communities we move into through geographic location.

Some communities we actively choose to join.

The government talk about community as if it is the answer to every solution but I wonder how they feel the answers will come in areas where communities are not as cohesive as they know and are used to or not as homogenous in nature.

This is a part of the detachment I feel of the government from the people who are governed.  Cameron’s ‘community’ doesn’t feel and look like my ‘community’.

My community has different needs and concerns. My community doesn’t have the resources, either in time or money that his community does.

What gives some communities more ‘value’ than others? That’s the question that I ask myself frequently. When government leaders seek out ‘community leaders’ do they prescribe value to the communities on the basis of the loudest voices or the largest numbers?

Are those who are isolated or who don’t have families or voices detached from any kind of community? I suspect they are and sometimes people don’t want to be a part of a community.

Community is always seen in terms of being a good thing, but the people involved in the riots and mass destruction across London as well as other cities, they were part of a community too. Why is community always positive? Perhaps because the experiences of those who ‘rule’ is that they come from communities, yes, that word again, where there is hope and aspiration. Communities can drag people down as well as pull people up and when we talk about ‘community building, we can’t ignore the uglier aspects of some communities.

As Cameron talks of ‘pockets of sick society’, I think we know where he is pointing the finger.  He is pointing the finger at ‘other communities’. He is pointing the finger away from himself and people like him. This is not his problem because this is not his community. Are those ‘pockets’ communities within themselves? It seems to me that they are and there needs to be a recognition that community is far broader in scope than the ‘let’s all help each other’ model.

The sooner we broaden communities and build communities across economic and cultural lines the more we improve society. If we, like the Prime Minister states, see this as a problem with ‘pockets of a sick society’ we isolate and abandon those elements and detach them from our own more mainstream society.

That is dangerous.

The sickness of society is that there are ‘pockets’ within it.  This is not simply about poverty. This is about the difference between building exclusive and inclusive societies and yes, communities.

Communities have to reach out and build bridges across them. We have to build more inclusion. We have to take responsibility and those that wish to push us into communities have to understand better the way the networks are interdependent.

My community is hurting. The only way I can see to rebuild it is to involve myself in it.

If anything indicates that there is a role for more macro social work. A role for community work  but an inclusive type of community that doesn’t self-select and is able to reach out to those who might not naturally seek to be a part.

I have felt fear this week, in a way I haven’t felt fear before. I’ve also felt anger and sadness. Now, I’m trying to find hope and I have and I will.

But I still despair of the politicians who purport to ‘lead’ us and the desperate isolation and detachment I feel between my world and the world I see and the worlds in which they move.

Community has a better hope of existing when some of the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are challenged and broken down.

That’s the real challenge for communities in these days ahead of us and we can no longer leave it in the hands of detached politicians who live in their own privileged communities.

We need to build. As the world moves on to the next News story, those of us left need to hold our attention on those around us and see what we might not have seen if we didn’t choose to look.

So what does community mean for you? Is it a useful word or has its lost it’s use through overused dullness?

I’d be interested in the responses because it’s been vexing my mind for a while.