Leading Article: The culture of discontent

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THE RIOTS in Blackburn, Burnley, Huddersfield, Bristol and elsewhere are small beer by the standards of, say, Los Angeles. The racial element in them has been minimal and the policing far more intelligent than was the norm a decade ago. What happens, typically, is that a couple of hundred bored youngsters from a miserable housing estate, white and black, mill around the streets

for a few hours on a warm summer evening. They are angry because friends have been arrested in drugs busts or killed in accidents following police chases to recover stolen vehicles.

Most of the troublemakers seem to have had too much to drink or to smoke. Thus emboldened, they set a few cars alight, build half-hearted barricades, throw some petrol bombs at the police, loot or set fire to a shop or two - preferably ones owned by industrious Asians - and eventually go home to bed. It makes disturbing - though, it has to be said, exciting - reading the next morning, and fills a few crucial minutes on the BBC's Today programme, but ultimately . . . who cares?

Professor John Kenneth Galbraith argues in his latest book that a 'culture of contentment' has emerged in the United States. The middle class has expanded to such an extent that the majority of the American electorate no longer has any direct interest in the problems of the ghettos. Nor, as a result, do the politicians. To transplant Professor Galbraith's thesis into British soil, neither John Major nor John Smith is dependent on the votes of those who have come to constitute what some would call an underclass.

The political parties can, in the short run, afford to ignore the problems of Burnley's run-down council estates as long as they command the support of the upwardly mobile citizens of Basildon. In the longer run, however, such selfishness only exacerbates the problem. It is easy to spell out the elements that have contributed to the creation of this underclass. The classic council estate has always been a ghetto waiting to happen. Schools are often appalling (and face appalling problems) because Britain has traditionally looked down on vocational training, preferring to concentrate on creaming off the intellectual elite of the working class through academic education.

In an advanced economy there is declining demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers at the best of times - and these are the worst of times. Youth unemployment has reached 80 per cent in some sink estates. There are few facilities for training, for self- improvement or even for sport and leisure activities. The cost of providing them has proved too great. In such circumstances the video, the joint, the trip to the pub and the rumble with the police come to be seen as logical reactions to a situation that is not of these young people's making.

The instinctive demand of the left for more sensitive policing is about as helpful as the Conservative insistence that the law will be enforced come what may. Both are correct, but neither will solve the problem of the growing ghetto culture of discontent. That would take a massive investment of thought, political will and, eventually, hard cash. Neither Government nor Opposition has given any sign that it is prepared to accept the challenge.