Anyone interested in a riot or two?

Another summer of disorder on the estates. But this time the response seems to be dangerously complacent
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When riots exploded in Toxteth, Brixton and Handsworth in the Eighties, the response was immediate: armies of sociologists (not to mention Lord Scarman) were dispatched to investigate, a flurry of policy initiatives followed and a media-wise government kept Michael Heseltine busy visiting inner-city areas with coachloads of prominent businessmen. Successive photo opportunities gave the impression of a government taking swift and decisive action, not just to restore order but also to tackle the causes.

The response to the riots of the Nineties has been quite different. After a couple of evenings on the television news they're forgotten, accepted as just another feature of modern British life. Whether in Leeds or Banbury, Luton or Bradford, riots have lost their capacity to shock. In Luton last week, it was striking how many parents of the rioters were ready to shrug their shoulders and explain away the riots as a crisis of youth with too much time on their hands and too little to do.

Part of this has to do with familiarity. But it may also have something to do with a shift in the cultural significance of rioting. In the Eighties, it was a symbol of powerlessness and exclusion. Those involved were seen as victims of unemployment, poverty or deprivation, the riots themselves as political protests. They were more obviously bound up with issues of race, and the fraught relationship between police forces and a less deferential generation of blacks and Asians.

Today, the rioters are often white, in out-of-town estates and areas that aren't obvious concentrations of unemployment, such as Leeds this week. They are either bored young men or aimless hedonists looking for thrills. It is hard to find anything resembling a political message.

As far back as 1990, in Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate, joyriding became the focus of nightly entertainment with infamous "hotting" displays. Riotous anti-social behaviour became almost an art form as samizdat videos were circulated that allowed young men to relive their kicks. Over time, even the older members of the community got sucked into the entertainment of the nightly display, sometimes coming to see it as more or less harmless fun, another manifestation of youth culture, no more intrusive than mods and rockers were in the Sixties.

In some senses, this complacent attitude can be justified. British history is peppered with examples of young men going on the rampage during hot and sticky summer months, and in the Eighties historians and sociologists took great delight in puncturing our initial sense of shock by pointing out the sheer normality of outbursts of exuberant destruction among young men.

But this apparently devil-may-care attitude masks not only a serious level of disconnection but also a dangerous deepening of the problem. The first and rather obvious point is that detachment is no longer the preserve of a few inner-city blacks. It is as likely to be a problem for young men in middle-income rural areas, on out-of-town housing estates - anywhere, in fact, where there's not much to do. It is as likely to affect any young man who misses out on the old routes from adolescence into adulthood, such as apprenticeship, the Army or a job in a factory.

The second, perhaps more volatile source of dislocation is that this generation has few if any political traditions to fall back on - no attachments to the labour movement, no background in protest, no real solidarity between the generations, and none of the institutions and networks that channelled the raw energy of previous generations of angry young men.

This failure to connect works both ways. As far as the public are concerned, the simple truth is that riots aren't much of a short-term problem. For the vast majority, they are less of a threat to their innate sense of security than other manifestations of crime, such as muggings or housebreaking, which affect them personally. Hence we have the paradox that while many of the rioters seem to be threatening those around them - whether it's the police or other local people - more often than not they are attacking and destroying their own public space. It's a situation that results in the alienation of the rioters being perfectly mirrored by the indifference of the state to their plight.

But there is another, much more important reason for avoiding complacency. The lessons of the Eighties riots seem to be clear: the decline of many of the areas where riots occurred has continued, in the absence of imaginative policies to tackle the root causes of alienation. Some inner cities have become virtual no-go areas. Organised crime has moved in and settled as part of the everyday culture. A drugs economy is in charge, controlled by men with mobile phones, its rules set by competing gangs handing out routinised violence and intimidation. It is as if all the energies once devoted to rioting have become focused on protecting territory and managing the business (which is why most of the riots take place far away from the really hardcore neighbourhoods).

It is increasingly hard to see how such areas can be turned around. The economic rewards for young men who go into crime far outstrip the pay from any conceivable legal job. Crime has fast become the best career on offer, the best source not only of status and standing, but also of community, camaraderie and friendship.

That's why those who take comfort in convincing themselves that tough crackdowns will do the job should think again. There is some evidence that they just make things worse. Many of the areas that were the site of riots in the Eighties have become pockets of ungovernability. Policing them is fraught with difficulties, as West Yorkshire police found out only this week when 150 youths went on the rampage, burning a pub and cars, in direct challenge to police seizures of drugs, weapons and stolen goods.

In retrospect, despite the ministerial soundbites and photo opportunities in response to the Eighties riots, it is hard to think of a worse failure of policy. At root it amounts to a complete failure of governance - an acceptance that slices of British cities are no longer subject to the same rules, the same norms, the same expectations as the rest.

The riots in places such as Luton are a warning shot. They're still salvageable if the will can be found to finance jobs and activities - preferably exciting, even risky ones - that will appeal to young men and women.

Neither party looks that well-placed to do the salvaging. Tory policies on law and order have left less of both. On the Labour side, the soundbite about being "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime" is right in principle, but begs all the difficult questions. Yet instead of accepting riots as part of the fabric of modern life, both sides should ask themselves whether, if they accept a steady slide of urban areas out of connection with society, they really deserve to be called governments at all.