But we had no need of Lord Scarman in 1981, admirably enlightened and clever though he is, and we still have no need of him. If the youth of Brixton had steady jobs, incomes and careers, and some prospect of independent adulthood, they would not have been rampaging through the streets last week. This is not to say that unemployment causes violent riot, still less that it excuses it. It is simply to observe that, without unemployment, you are unlikely to get riots and that this applies as much to white working- class estates in the North-east as to Brixton, Broadwater Farm or Toxteth. Wise men and women may like to ponder the proximate causes of particular riots. Why Brixton this year rather than last year or the year before? Why is Toxteth quiet nowadays? Such questions miss the point. Anybody familiar with these inner-city areas knows that they are always on the edge of lawlessness, that crime and violence (largely committed by poor inner-city dwellers on each other) are endemic, that mild levels of vandalism are unexceptional, that relations with police are always fraught. A kind of muted riot is normal; what seems sudden and dramatic to outsiders is part of a continuum to those who live in such areas.
Why so? We do not need to look much further than old proverbs about devils and idle hands. In spring 1994, unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds in Greater London was 16 per cent for whites, 34 per cent for ethnic minorities generally, 50 per cent for blacks. Many of the young unemployed will come from homes where parents, brothers and sisters are also unemployed. They may drift in and out of temporary jobs, perhaps even attempt a training scheme, but to most of them the prospect of a career and a secure income must seem as remote as a flight to the dark side of the Moon. So what do they do all day? There is a limit to bicycling around, month in, month out, looking for work, suffering constant rejection. Far easier to hang around the streets, impressing your mates, winning respect for your skill at robbery, your boldness in smashing shop windows, your willingness to confront the police. And the longer you do it and the higher your status in the street culture, the harder it becomes to exchange this life for a menial, low-paid job where you will be bossed about by people in suits. Breaking the law is fun; rioting, an extreme form of so doing, is bigger fun. Most of the jobs available to young people in poor areas are not much fun at all. They are tolerated only if they offer the financial independence that young people crave, but most are too poorly paid or too temporary for that. In effect, we are denying young people the means for a transition to adulthood; we should not be surprised if they behave like children.
This may seem too simple an explanation for politicians and sociologists of both right and left. But all else is for the birds. No doubt the inner cities could be more sensitively policed and could benefit from more community or arts centres; no doubt schools and families should inculcate more discipline. But to leave energetic young people hanging around the streets all day with nothing to do is asking for trouble. The idea of work as the central, defining feature of life and identity is disappearing for large sections of the population, rather as politicians and economists say that it should. New research funded by the Department for Education and Employment reports that most young people now do not give, as reasons for wanting a job, that work is normal or that they expect to follow a career. They will take a job for the money or for the company of other people, not for the sake of it. Indeed, work has become so infrequent and transient that the street gang or the football crowd may well offer a better and more permanent route to self-definition and self-respect.
After each riot, we hope that a Lord Scarman can find some wise solutions: a few million pounds of "regeneration" here, another police consultative committee there. By now, we should have learnt that we face a deeper crisis. As long as unemployment is a feature of our economic system, riots will not go away.Reuse content