Archbishop of Canterbury says riots will return unless we reach out to young
UK must rescue those who think they have nothing to lose or face further civil unrest, says Rowan Williams
The archbishop of Canterbury has warned that England risks a repeat of the riots that spread across England this summer unless the government and civil society do more to „rescue those who think they have nothing to lose“.
Warning of „more outbreaks of futile anarchy“, Rowan Williams, called for a renewed effort to reach out to alienated young people during what he described as the „unavoidable austerity ahead“.
In an article for the Guardian, Williams links the disorder spread cross England to the „massive economic hopelessness“ and the prospect of record levels of youth unemployment.
Responding to the findings of the Guardian and London School of Economics research study, based on interviews with 270 rioters, Williams argues: „It isn’t surprising if we see volatile, chaotic and rootless young people letting off their frustration in the kind of destructive frenzy we witnessed in August.“
An overwhelming majority of people interviewed about their involvement in this summer’s riots believe they will be repeated and one in three said they would take part in any future disorder.
Of those rioters questioned for the Reading the Riots study, 81% said they believed the disturbances that spread across England in August would happen again. Two-thirds predicted there would be more riots before the end of 2014.
The research project, which is the only study to involve interviews with hundreds of people who rioted across England, found they were predominantly from the country’s most deprived areas.
The downturn in the economy featured heavily in interviews, with many complaining of falling living standards and worsening employment prospects.
Williams said reading the accounts of rioters in towns and cities across England had given him „enormous sadness“.
Williams writes: „Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with adults – especially those in authority, the police above all. Too many of them inhabit a world in which the obsession with ‚good‘ clothes and accessories – against a backdrop of economic insecurity or simple privation – creates a feverish atmosphere where status falls and rises as suddenly and destructively as a currency market.“
Williams adds: „The big question that Reading the Riots leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose.
„We have to persuade them, simply, that we as government and civil society alike will be putting some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have. Without this, we shall face more outbreaks of futile anarchy, in which we shall all, young and old, be the losers.“
The archbishop’s intervention comes just a week after George Osborne lowered economic growth forecasts, increased government borrowing and said austerity measures would be extended to 2017.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said on Monday that income inequality among working-age people has risen faster in Britain than in any other rich nation since the mid-1970s.
The Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting 710,000 public sector job losses in the next six years. Last month, official figures revealed the number of unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds had risen to more than 1 million.
Of the rioters interviewed in Guardian/LSE study who were of working age and not in education, 59% were unemployed.
Those questioned were pessimistic about the future, with 29% disagreeing with the statement „life is full of opportunities“ – compared with 13% among the population at large. Eighty-five percent said poverty was an „important“ or „very important“ factor in causing the riots. The general population largely agreed, with 68% saying poverty was a significant cause of the summer unrest. In the aftermath of the August riots, the prime minister, David Cameron, was quick to dismiss the idea that poverty was a factor in the disorder. „These riots were not about poverty,“ he said. „That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.“
However, the independent panel Cameron set up to take evidence from victims of the riots concluded last week that poverty was an important factor.
It found that more than half of those who had appeared in court proceedings relating to the riots had come from the most deprived 20% of areas in Britain.
The report added to a growing body of evidence about the poverty and alienation that characterised those who took part in the England riots.
Only 51% of rioters interviewed by the Guardian/LSE said they felt „part of British society“ – compared with 92% of the wider population.
Williams also called for a restorative rather than a punitive approach toward those responsible for the looting and rioting four months ago. „Demonising volatile and destructive young people doesn’t help; criminalising them wholesale reinforces the problem.
„Of course crime needs punishment and the limits of acceptable behaviour have to be set. The youth justice system has a good record in restorative justice methods that bring people up sharp against the human consequences of what they have done. We have the tools for something other than vindictive or exemplary penalties.“
He added: “ We may well wince when some describe how the riots brought them a feeling of intense joy, liberation, power. But we have to go on to ask what kind of life it is in which your emotional highs come from watching a shop being torched or a policeman being hit by a brick.“
On the BBC’s Newsnight last night the police minister, Nick Herbert, said he did not accept that the police behaved in the way mentioned by some of the young rioters who told Guardian/LSE researchers about negative experiences at the hands of officers on a regular basis.
„I think there were particular issues about where this kicked off, in Tottenham, that are being investigated at the moment,“ he said. „But I think elsewhere this was much more of copycat action. I think it was about looting.“In relation to the cause of the riots, Herbert said that while the public at large had tended to cite issues such as social breakdown and family breakdown „The rioters themselves were of course much more reluctant to accept responsibility and what they wanted to do was blame others.“
Herbert emphasised that two-thirds of those interviewed said they had been cautioned by police or convicted of an offence in the past.
Asked if he accepted what the interviews suggested about how the police were seen by many of those who took part, he said: „I accept that by the testimony of the peiople who were involved there, they were saying that they dislike the police. I make the point again. These were people who have been in trouble with the police. It is not surprising.“