These rioters are Tony Blair's children, Harriet Sergeant, The Spectator, 13 August 2011
On the third day of the London riots I received a telephone call from Mash, a member of a Brixton gang who I befriended three years ago. He was standing outside an electronics shop in Clapham, watching the looting. I could hear shouts, glass breaking but never a police siren. I urged him to go home. ‘Harri man,’ he remonstrated, his voice hoarse with emotion, "You don’t get to do this every day. You do your thing, and you don’t get arrested. It’s wild and exciting. These few days, it’s our time."
The riots engulfing areas of London and other cities this week are not about poverty or race. They are about young men like Mash who are barely literate, unemployed, with no future and nothing to lose. For them it is suddenly a dream come true. Their favourite video games have become a reality. They have got what they never had before – power, a sense of achievement and lots of goodies. Most of us want the same thing. The difference is we can get them without setting London ablaze.
I met Mash three years ago, when I interviewed black Caribbean and white working class boys around the country – the very boys who recently took charge of our streets – for a think-tank report on why these boys are failing. During my investigations, I got to know one south London gang in particular. Am I surprised these riots have taken place? Not at all. I am only surprised they did not happen sooner. In fact so convinced was I of the danger that I stocked up on tinned food, fixed my old fashioned, wooden shutters and bought a baseball bat. I am glad I did. Last night a gang carrying machetes were on patrol only two streets away.
This is no left wing, hand-wringing series of excuses for acts of violence and criminality. But unless we understand the causes of this anarchy and the role that government has played, how can we put it right?
The young men I interviewed had very obviously failed to make the transition to manhood and a successful adult life. Their failure leaves them disengaged from society and its values. The majority find themselves trapped in an extended, semi-criminal adolescence well into their 20s and 30s. The former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has been quick to blame this sudden explosion of violence on Conservative tax cuts. He has a nerve. These young men came of age during the thirteen years of Labour. They are Blair’s children and the Left’s creation. It is not deprivation that has stunted their lives, but the policies of the previous government in three key areas – school, work and home. As one boy said to me, "I did not want this life. It just happened to me." Here is how.
To understand the mayhem on our streets look no further than a set of figures on literacy rates that came out a week before the riots began. Teaching a child to read and write is not difficult or expensive. Poorer countries than ours manage to do it. The statistics in the UK are staggering. A full 63 per cent of white working class boys, and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below. How does that translate to violence on our streets? Humiliated in lessons, 14 the young men I interviewed either dropped out or were excluded. They then spent their time hanging around on the streets – only turning up to school to sell drugs or stolen goods
Illiteracy is a life sentence. Studies show that about half of the prison population has a reading age below that of an 11 year old. Of the South London Gang I met three years ago, all bright but only semi-literate, three are now in prison. Bigs, the former leader of one of Brixton’s most notorious gangs received his first prison sentence at 15. As he told me: "Other people go from school to university. We go from school to prison. I thought I would be dead by 30."
Reading failure is just one example of how our educational establishment puts their cherished beliefs first and the child a very distant second. They emphasise what ought to work. They do not investigate or accept the evidence of what actually gives teenage boys the traits needed to thrive: discipline, structure, plenty of exercise and something in which to identify and take pride in, which, ironically, many only find in gangs. As one teacher from East London told me, "I am instructed to put into place educational initiatives for which there is no educational evidence whatsoever." Faced with a child who is incapable of "directing his own learning", teachers will question what is wrong with the child or blame his background, not their teaching.
Over and over again, the previous government put the interests of teaching unions above those of pupils. Even with such dismal educational results from our poorest children (only one in six white boys on free school meals, for example, have mastered the three Rs) just 12 teachers out of a work force of 450,000 have been suspended for incompetence in the last nine years. As Tuggy Tug, the leader of the gang who is now in prison said, "The teachers don’t even try. They only care about the wage at the end of the year." The casualties of an education system based on wishful thinking now fill our prisons and our benefit queues. But they come to the national attention only now, when they are causing mayhem on our streets.
The second factor is the change in Britain’s job market. Forty years ago a young man like Tuggy could leave school at 16 without few, if any, qualifications – then get a job in a factory and at 19 support a wife and child. Now there are far fewer such jobs in our economy. This leaves working class black and white boys particularly vulnerable to the other major change in the job market – immigration. Under Labour, the arrival of large numbers of skilled capable immigrants willing to work for low pay has hit them hard and left them sidelined. According to the ONS, of the 1.8 million new jobs created over the Labour years, 99 per cent went to immigrants. Since David Cameron came to power, the figure is 82 per cent.
This invidious combination of poor schools and immigration goes a long way to explaining why, for so many looters, there is no choice other than the dole and criminality. What do we think happens to boys like Mash who emerge from a school where only 7 per cent of the pupils at that time got five good GSCEs? What future can he possibly have? As he puts it: "School shatters your dreams before you get anywhere."
This situation is compounded by the effect of benefits. Far from lifting these young men out of poverty, it bolts down the hatch. Over and over again, I have found myself in court speaking on behalf of young men who have tried to get jobs, been laid off then got into council tax arrears having lost their benefits. Another young man finally got a job, only to be told by his Job Centre advisor not to take it. After the loss of his rent, council tax and utility payments he would have been £30 worse off.
As for motivation, Swagger, who is in his thirties and on incapacity benefit, shrugged and said: “Of course immigrants are motivated. I seen on the TV the houses they build back home with what they earn here. If I could buy a nice little house with two bedrooms and a garden in London on a minimum wage, I’d be motivated too.” At the same time the catering trade alone has recruited 10,000 workers from outside Europe to work in kitchens or as porters or back of house staff – all jobs the young men I know could have done, despite their illiteracy.
The young men now in charge of our streets frighten us because they have such total disregard for our values. But then they have disengaged from society for a reason. They see nothing it for them. And in this they are quite right. Semi-literate, in competition with skilled and motivated immigrants, they are not qualified for low paid work as a first step for something better and an independent adult existence. The overwhelming attitude of all the young man was despair at the prospect of a lifetime dependent on benefits. Mash summed up all their futures, “I know men of 40 doing nothing but drink and drugs all day. I don’t blame them,” he shook his head angrily, “But it’s too early for me. I don’t want to be beat like that.” Unfortunately he is.
The third place where government intervention has been so disastrous is the home. Politicians are now appearing on TV demanding parents to keep their children under curfew. I wonder what planet they are living on. Certainly not the same as the boys I know, for whom grown-ups have been absent or ineffectual. The boys do not even get fed properly, let alone supervised. They are not alone. In a recent survey 49 per cent of British parents did not know where their children were in the evenings or with whom. Some 45 per cent of 15 year old boys spent four or more evening a week hanging about ‘with friends’ compared to just 17 per cent in France. Tuggy Tug, the leader of the gang said of his friends, “I get more from them than I ever did from my family.” His recent jail sentence was his first experience of spending time with adult males.
Nearly every one of the young men I interviewed had a young, single mother. Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. Despite the huge amount of evidence of the harm this causes children (mothers of children on the ‘at risk’ register, for example, are five times more likely to be single, teenage mothers – boys are more likely to join gangs and commit crime) the Labour government made single motherhood an attractive proposition. Since 1997, a single mother of two children has seen her benefits increase by a staggering 85 per cent.
To accuse these young girls of being feckless is unjust. They are merely responding to the economics of the situation. They are as much victims of the crisis in our schools and the perverse influence of benefits as teenage boys. They have grasped the consequences of our poor education system. Whereas boys take to crime, girls get pregnant. The government have put young girls in a position where the only career open to them is to have children, whether they want to or not and regardless of whether or not they are good mothers. The state has taken over the role of both husband and father and, as it is all too clear, have failed at both. We can watch the effects of that policy play out on our streets every night this week.
But such visible failure may, finally, make us address the role of the welfare state, just as the Los Angeles riots of 1992 helped to create the climate for welfare reform four years later in the States. Sadly, Britain has proved far, far better than America at ignoring the warning signs.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the telephone, Mash was giving me the latest update. Usually confined to one small area, he was relishing the freedom of being able to move around London without being attacked by other gangs, "Only people to worry about is the feds," he said then added, chillingly, "But the feds are scared, Harri. We can see it in their eyes. They are scared 100 per cent." And that is why we should be getting very scared indeed.