I HAVE A NEW THEORY ABOUT THE RIOTS. And I will mention it briefly, then move on, because the analysis and reconstruction are much much better left to wiser, more patient, more experienced people than an armchair middle-classnik like me. (Read ultraruby
, for instance.) But anyway, I am wondering to what extent the Great British Narrative of Decline informs the situation, at every level. Tories spouting that family breakdown and liberal policing have caused the misery, unlike an imagined golden age in the past where paterfamilias kept order and your friendly local white bobby just had to frown at one of the dastardly gypsies from Enid Blyton and crime was averted. Lefties blaming the cuts in EMA and youth services, as though there were never any riots, any theft or any deprivation in the glorious Blair years or in the 1950s, as though people weren't still dying young of TB and as though all those vaunted manufacturing industry jobs didn't also routinely cause hideous industrial accidents and life-long disability. Liberals talking about poverty of aspiration in an increasingly unequal society, as though the "more equal" Britain of the 1960s wasn't built on a toxic practice of empire and on trade protectionism; just look at Britain's filthy little satrapy in Northern Ireland in those years for a flipside to the narrative of the "age of opportunity", never mind the ways in which Jamaican immigrants or Kenyan freedom fighters were treated.
Britain was better, then. People worked harder, aspired more, had decent jobs to go to, respected community more, were wealthier, healthier, less in thrall to television. Not like today's broken Britain. All the coalition government and the UK media have to offer the British public is a non-stop narrative of misery, austerity, corruption, sinking living standards, cuts in services, poverty in old age, massive middle-class debt, the pauperisation of social tenants, decline and fall.
Maybe I'm wrong, but thinking back to the 1980s Ireland of my childhood, where there was an enormous amount of poverty but not so much social unrest (we exported it to the North), I think that narratives of decline and fall had no place. There was no golden age for us to hark back to; there was the grinding poverty of the 1950s, the unsustainable and preposterous separatism of the 1930s, and the humiliation of colonisation. Whether or not things had been better under the British in the 1910s than under de Valera in the 1940s (as I sometimes suspect they must have been), no Irish citizen in the 1980s and no Irish citizen now yearns to return to British imperial rule. Even now, I don't hear many Irish people saying "if only we could return to the glorious Tiger days of 1999". We know we've messed up, but the only way is forward, hoping and planning for a new better Ireland. And I suspect - though what would I know? - that this is why the Irish culture of education is so much stronger than the British one, where 50% going to university is only an abandoned aspiration (in Ireland, it's the norm, and numbers are going up year on year). Maybe I'm just a big Hegelian banging on about narratives of progress here, but the British narrative of decline just seems to be leading to despair and rancour. I am very tired of it.