A Foul State of Affairs – A Year After The England Riots

Tottenham Riots

It is just over a year since the civil unrest that spread across England in last summer’s riots. Lots of well-spoken political commentators and pundits have had their say in the media on the cause of the riots and the national umbrage of our youth last year. Most of those commentators have decent careers, live comfortable lives and have a vested interest in saying the right thing. It was also noticeable how politicians on all sides focussed on the “criminality” and cost of the riots, whilst refusing to accept any culpability in the state of the society they and their peers have propagated.

Whatever was the real cause of last years’ riots, it’s hard not to accept that there is a hypocrisy and corporate sickness that is at the core of much of our nations ills and bitterness. It’s difficult to say when or how this all started, but a good place to start is the turn of the millennium. This was a landmark time period on the calendar and should have signified an epoch of a new and better era rather than just a big, lucrative, corporate party. Yet the extravagant state spending that started with the Millennium Dome and continued into the 21st century has not been the answer to our ”broken society”. And whilst David Cameron spoke out about our “moral collapse” and “irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if choices have no consequences, children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities”, the last couple of years have shown that many of those from the higher echelons of society – namely bankers and politicians – are just as guilty as those poorly educated, impoverished rioters of whom he was speaking. And I believe it is the double standards, hypocrisy and disproportionate approach to spending of state funds that was largely responsible for fuelling the flames of last years’ civil unrest.

It was estimated that the Millennium Dome cost the taxpayer around £1 billion. Yet after the big end of the millennium show, the government couldn’t find a way to make the dome profitable, so they sold it for a comparatively paltry £106m! The renamed O2 Arena, which is now privately owned by AEG, has been the most successful music venue in the world for the third year running. Which is good news for the state who reap the benefits of the taxes it brings in, and I suppose this in someway covers some of the astronomical losses incurred by the taxpayer. That is until you then consider what came next – the new Wembley Stadium.

Let the corporate party begin.

In 2001 the BBC reported that the new Wembley Stadium – originally estimated at costing around £200 million – could end up costing around £660m. That’s significantly more than the fantastic Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, more than the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, more than the Stade de France in Paris, more than Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium – more than any other sporting venue in the world! It was reported that the final, real cost of building Wembley was around £975m – almost three times more than the original quote. You can’t help but think if there was this kind of increase in costs for building a personal property being paid for out of an MP’s own pocket, would they have been so casual and forthcoming in paying for it? But this money was lottery money, F.A. money – public money, so it is a lot easier to keep on giving. National stadium, national pride, fantastic political currency.

In February 2011 Sky News reported that, ‘Some £9.3bn of public sector funding would pay for the Olympics in London, with Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office saying, “the final cost of the Games to the taxpayer is inherently uncertain”‘ The final cost of the Olympics is now more than £11bn, but the event has proved to be a huge success in terms of medals and state profile and the nation is currently on a high – again, a flagship international event represents great political currency.

Billion Dollar Baby

The BBC relocation to MediaCity in Salford was estimated at costing the taxpayer around £1 billion. This included furnishing the BBC’s MediaCity offices budgeted at £37 million. The BBC reported that they would pay £1900 per month over two years to house those with commitments in London who moved to Salford in luxury apartments on Salford Quays. Those who ‘upped-sticks’ and moved straight away would be given a ‘Taxable relocation payment of £5000’ – which is nice. For those who refused to move ‘oop Norf’, the redundancy pot was ‘allegedly’ around £64 million.

The banking crisis of 2010 plunged the nation into economic meltdown, resulting in people losing their homes, jobs and livelihoods and ushering in a period of austerity measures unheard of since the war. Yet whilst the rioters received stiff sentences for their sins, the bankers drove off into the sunset in their luxury cars, many of them taking six figure bonuses with them – some as much as £15 million – and without serving a minute in jail for what was tantamount to criminal irresponsibility. Whilst Iceland charged their premier, and along with Ireland, tracked down their rogue bankers and made them pay, we coughed up the money from the national coffers to bale out the banks. We even allowed Bob Diamond to resign with a £2 million payout a year later, even though he was at the helm of alleged fraud at Barclays. In times of austerity and public outrage at the bankers actions, it is difficult for many of us to stomach the figure of £850 billion that we paid to bale the banks out (RBS demanded another 1.5 billion on bonuses!).

Bankers in the Dock.

For most people it’s difficult to comprehend these types of figures and this scale of public money being seemingly wasted so casually. It’s even more difficult for your average hard working man and woman on an average wage, to stomach the kinds of profits and wages and lifestyles of those brokering these types of financially, calamitous deals; especially if they have ever been fined – or even worse, convicted in court – for such venal sins as using the wrong bin, or staying five minutes longer than their allotted time at a parking bay, or missing the deadline on a tax return. But even on a local level the amounts of money that are circumnavigated out of the treasury and into the hands of wealthy movers and shakers for political currency is alarming.

In 2007, local newspaper The Salford Star feature a blog about a regeneration project in Chimney Pot Park. Over £15 million was being poured into an Urban Splash development in two deprived areas of the city. When Hazel Blears, the Salford MP who resigned after being disgraced for fraudulent expense claims, introduced Urban Splash to Salford under the frantic, glare of flashing press cameras, she boldly took her publicity opportunity as she stood next to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Urban Splash Chairman, Tom Bloxham (MBE) and announced that the plans would “create exciting, affordable homes and help boost the regeneration of Seedley and Langworthy.” But when the heralded “affordable homes” of the Salford development were put on the market, the average price was £120,000 whilst Salford Council’s definition of an affordable home at the time was £57,000. Of the 108 houses that first went on sale, only 18 houses were kept back for local people (with a further 12 in reserve), and only 7 of them were priced at £99,950 – almost double the council’s definition of affordable. The rest of the houses cost upwards of £146,000. So for a public investment of £15 million, less than a third of the houses from that development were built for the local community and none of them were by the local council’s standard, ‘affordable’. However, Urban Splash offered discounts to its employees who wanted to buy one of the properties. It also turned out that there was actually nothing in the developer’s agreement to set aside affordable properties for local people. “We were not obliged to do this” confirmed a spokesperson for Urban Splash, “We did this from a genuine desire to offer houses to local people.”

In November 2000 the Daily Telegraph revealed that Urban Splash got up to 40% of the costs of some of its major developments from grant aid, and in particular from the government funded Partnership Investment Programme, which was subsequently outlawed by the EEC because it gave private companies an unfair advantage. The article concluded, ‘public money provided the developer with his profit… with surprisingly few conditions attached.’ The Chairman of Urban Splash, said at the time that, “It’s good business to do regeneration.” Apparently so.

Whilst the government sees fit to fork out literally billions on expensive stadia, corporate monoliths and handouts to help the already wealthy make even more wealth, it is sucking money out of community, culture, and public services which keep common society and our fragile communities bound together. Whilst politicians are having high powered meetings in plush offices over expensive meals with corporate CEO’s and members of big business’ wealthy oligarchy, the common man and woman doing an honest day’s work to survive from one overdraft to the next are left to struggle. And whilst this is all taking place, our disparate youth are being spoon-fed mindless media entertainment, consumerist junk and low-grade education’s, plunging their moral compass into disarray. They watch the rich and famous get paid huge amounts of money for doing very little. They watch the “irresponsibility” and “selfishness” of high-powered businessmen “behaving as if choices have no consequences” but getting away with all manner of indiscretions. As judges appear to pander to celebrities and their expensive lawyers, these same ‘icons’ of modern society pervade every corner of every media platform spouting vacuous inanities in the name of fashion/lifestyle/sport – all carefully edited so as not to jeopardise another sponsorship deal or media pay day – then they use their expensive accountants to avoid paying tax. Do you think this could have anything to do with the simmering frustration and anger within poor communities? There’s no point in looking to the media for answers because as the Levenson enquiry has highlighted, there is clearly a disturbingly collusive relationship between the media, the government and the police.

As the PR companies and spin-doctors perfect the art of polishing a turd, our confused young are blinded by ‘bling’ and justifiably have no interest in becoming the wage slaves that their parents have become. Most hardworking people doing a 35 to 40 hour week on an average wage are living hand to mouth on just enough to get by, as prices continue to rise and the guilt of not having the necessary lifestyle accoutrements bears heavily on their debit cards. Is this how we imagined it would be in the 21st century?

Illustration by Paul Davies courtesy of Bloomberg.com

The whole continent of Africa could have been bought, irrigated and turned into the worlds biggest Tesco for the amount of money that has been squandered by our bankers and politicians in the last 15 years. When you compound all this with the all too recent headlines regarding the MP’s expenses scandal, where the pious and judgmental leaders of our country and councils squirmed under the media spotlight as they tried to explain away paying for pornography, moats and taps and sinks and second homes out of tax payers money, its enough to make you sick when you hear these same people condemn benefit cheats and preach about ‘public decency and respect’. And what is their defence? “It’s a system that has been in place for years” and “I did nothing wrong within the rules”. Their empty defence only serves to confirm that the majority of MP’s were culpable by not exposing the system years ago, yet Cameron talks of “moral collapse” in our society. I say that society learns from the example set by its leaders. Only the average man or woman in the street and those who were caught up in the hysteria of the riots cannot simply apologise, wave a cheque on TV and pay the money back. If every other thief in court had that luxury our prisons would be half empty.

The last couple of years have seen senior police officers, politicians, media moguls and CEO’s of huge corporations in the dock. If found guilty, are our politicians going to suggest that these police officers lose their pensions and other state benefits like the rioters? Are the politicians going to revoke the rights of bankers and brokers who crippled our economy to work in the city again? Are the politicians going to suggest that the banker’s pay for the damage caused to the country during the riots out of their substantial wealth? During the riots, would the police have stood so idly by for so long had the looters and vandals moved toward Canary Wharf, Belgravia or Knightsbridge? Would they have got the water cannons and rubber bullets out then?

In politics like in business, leaders love to bask in the accolades of success but refuse to accept responsibility when things go wrong. Our rioters are the product of the society which the policies that todays politicians and their predecessors’ have created? Nick Clegg predicted that the Tory governments’ policies could lead to civil unrest, but that was before he was within that comfortable, cradle of Downing Street. Now that he is part of the gang, he sings from their hymn sheet. But the politicians stare seriously into camera with a rehearsed look of disgust and bemusement at the public expression of anger and frustration. They wonder why there is no trust or respect for authority. They wonder why society is broken. They wonder why Tottenham erupted into violence over the death at the hands of police, of a young man of colour from a poor inner city area, when over 330 people have died in police custody since 1998 and not one police officer has been convicted .

Just because we all don’t have the capacity to articulate our feelings into words, it doesn’t mean that we haven’t taken in what is happening around us and it hasn’t had an emotional or psychological effect. The television and newspaper reports on the riots and the opinions expressed by the public were very selective – which is unsurprising when you consider the relationship these media organisations have with parliament. The independently produced documentary, ‘Perfect Storm: The England’s Riot Documentary’ produced by www.wideshut.co.uk provides an alternative and much more rounded perspective for example.

We are all complicit to some degree in the degeneration of our societies and cultures. As consumers we feed the corporate coffers irrespective of what ethical violations they commit across the world. We sit back in abject apathy watching nonsense on TV and argue with our neighbours over trivialities rather than bringing our politicians to account with a letter a week. But we’re browbeaten and desensitised by the sheer wave of corruption and injustice, and the vapid distraction that is thrown at us from every billboard and newspaper and magazine and TV screen and monitor every second of every day. And we’re too exhausted by fighting off the constant threat of economic insecurity. But in our defence, it isn’t us, the common men and women, who steer the direction of the polluting bandwagon. We are all in this together, but not in the way Mr. Cameron’s speechwriter means. We must take responsibility for what is happening around us as a society, as a people, as a species. We must try to make an effort for the collective good, even if it doesn’t directly affect us NOW, because eventually it will, as those business owners found out during the riots. I for one don’t want to see our society degenerate into the type of horrific civil unrest that consumed Nazi Germany, or the Balkan’s, or Rwanda – and don’t think that that is impossible in this most modern of societies. To use a football analogy, no team is too good to go down; so ‘I’m alright Jack’ just isn’t a philosophy that works. There is a sickness in our society, and I believe the virus causing that sickness is firmly entrenched within Parliament itself.

‘And as a single leaf turns yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree, So the wrong-deor cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all’

From ‘A Prophet’ by Khalil Gibran

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