Matthew Norman: We have to teach the next generation to aspire. But how?


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The Independent Online

After the dystopian horror show, perhaps this is the time for a little Utopian thinking. It won't do an ounce of good to those who most need good done to them. But nor will the party leaders' speeches, and a little fantasy politics has to be more fun than listening to the real thing from those flailing about to strike the right pose.

So here's the game. Having slipped through the worm hole between your pillows, you awake in a parallel universe identical in every detail other than this. You are now the benign lifetime dictator of Britain. Right then, what to do with the several million lost souls whose several thousand representatives on the streets treated themselves to trainers and tellies last week? We know they are out there on the hideous estates, idling their lives away in welfare-tranquillised misery, clueless and hopeless, barely literate or numerate, livid with frustration.

But we've known that for ages, and suppressed the knowledge through indifference and the self-protective instinct that shields us from despair. The reason for the disproportionate rage with the looters isn't the looting, nasty as it was. It is that they robbed us of the chance to feign ignorance. They blew the whistle on our massive collective failure, and no fury is hotter than the fury reserved for the whistle-blower.

So then, beyond banging some of them up for a bit, what would you do with them? You have totalitarian power, but none of the cash without which nothing ever radically improves on a national level. What you do have is the luxury of time. With no elections to fight, no shrieking tabloids and backbenchers to assuage, you need not succumb to the shrilly over-emphatic posturing and short-termist bluster with which David Cameron makes Ed Miliband's nuanced approach look so impressively mature. You needn't don the handbag to give us your Thatch.

You might be tempted, as I am, by affirmative action. One of those rare trends not to cross the Atlantic, this is unpopular in our real world (you may recall the Protestant outrage in Belfast when it was visited on the RUC), but richly appeals in the parallel one. If enough black people could be hurried into universities and good careers, a vibrant black middle class would be created and the shaming lack of positive black British role models addressed. We have never had a Colin Powell or a Condi Rice, let alone a Barack Obama. With classically self-delusional British smugness, we congratulated ourselves on our tolerance and integration, because our police stopped beating up black kids and we learnt to keep the filthy racist epithets to ourselves. But tolerance does not equal integration, and we shut our eyes to the dearth of dark faces in the upper echelons of government, army, police, City, media and judiciary.

Affirmative action, as introduced by JFK and massively advanced by (of all presidents) Richard Nixon, has been no panacea. There are more black men in US jails today than there were prisoners in Stalin's USSR. It creates understandable bitterness among whites, as The West Wing's spectacularly liberal CJ Cregg touched on when complaining how her maths teacher dad was repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of less- qualified black candidates.

Besides, however misleading the TV pictures, this is not, at core, a racial issue. Low reading skills are slightly more prevalent among poor whites than in the black community.

Even if you decide that white resentment is a price worth paying, and that affirmative action across the entire underclass spectrum is the way ahead, it is a long way ahead. Before you can propel people into universities and good jobs, you must teach them more than the three Rs and how to think. You have to teach them to aspire, and along with adequate schools, that demands a motivation dependent on realistic career opportunity and sustained parental involvement.

In the game of Fantasy Social Engineering, you can do all manner of things. You can storm into every one of Mr Cameron's 120,000 "troubled families", and pluck the children from dysfunction. You can sequestrate every country house hotel, turning them into Etons for the disadvantaged with money hypothecated from a 90 per cent surcharge on bank profits and bonuses. You can scrap Trident and reduce the army to a defensive force, using the funds to turn young offenders' institutions into the Elysian fields of rehabilitation. And then you can wait 20 years to see how that works out for the next generation.

As a relatively benign PM in this world, however, you cannot so much as appoint your preference as Met Commissioner. All you can do is what Mr Cameron will do, because he has no choice, and what Mr Miliband would do in his place for the same compelling reason. You talk big with elections in mind, while privately accepting the stark limits of democratic power. Too often we talk the language of malignancy with issues such as this, but it's a lazy mistake. This is not a societal cancer that can be excised, irradiated or crushed by brutal chemo. This is diabetes 2, an irreversible condition stemming from long-term inadequate nutrition of the poor rather than a genetic mutation that somehow makes them wicked. The best you can do is live with it, and keep the outbreaks of hypoglycaemic shock to the minimum. This current debate may provide political distinction between Messrs Cameron and Miliband, and that's no bad thing.

What they are arguing about is symptom management. They both know, as we all do, that there is no cure, and not a chance that one will be found in our lifetime.