Notes From the Margins…

Home Office Shock Exclusive: the Poor Exist

  • October 25, 2011
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The Home Office’s statistics about last summer’s riots make interesting reading, especially if we remind ourselves of some of the more crazed political and media analysis that accompanied these events, such as this vent about the rioters from  Max Hastings in the Mail:

They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong. They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.  Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week.

Hastings rejects any suggestion that the ‘feral children’ who participated in the riots had anything to do with social deprivation or inequality since ‘ the welfare state has relieved them from hunger and real want…When social surveys speak of “deprivation” and “poverty”, this is entirely relative.’

It might be relative.  But it still exists.  And don’t take my word for it.  Just ask the Home Office:

Those appearing at court tended to be from more  deprived circumstances than the wider population  of England: 35 per cent of adult defendants were  claiming out-of-work benefits (compared to 12 per  cent of the working age population); 42 per cent  of young people brought before the courts were in  receipt of free school meals (compared to 16% of  pupils in maintained secondary school); and 64 per  cent of those young people lived in one of the 20  most deprived areas in the country only three per  cent lived in one of the 20 least deprived areas.

And contrary to perceptions of a violent underclass overwhelmed by gang culture, the report found that ’13 per cent of arrestees (417) were reported to  be affiliated to a gang’ , 337 of whom were arrested in London, and that ‘where gang members were  involved [in the disturbances], they generally did not play a pivotal role’.

In terms of racial/ethnic background:  ‘Forty per cent of all arrestees described their ethnicity  as White, 39 per cent as Black, 11 per cent as from a  Mixed ethnic background, eight per cent as Asian and  two per cent from some other ethnic background.’

The Report also notes that the largest number any single category of crimes consisted of 2, 561 ‘acquisitive’ crimes ( robbing shops etc) out of a total of 5,112 crimes committed in total.  Interestingly ‘Male arrestees were more  likely than females to be arrested for disorder offences  while females were more likely to be arrested for  acquisitive offences.’

What these statistics appear to tell us is that the majority of those who took part in the riots were in fact members of a deprived underclass, and that many of them simply took an opportunity to take the things that many of them cannot afford to buy but are continually told they ought to have.  The Italian left used to call this phenomenon autoriduzione (‘self-reduction’) of prices ie. looting, also known as ‘proletarian shopping.’

This isn’t what David Cameron is calling it.    Back in August the ex-Etonian  peered down in horror at  Britain’s ‘moral collapse’ and promised to respond with a national citizens service for all 16-year olds, since  ‘Teamwork, discipline, duty, decency: these might sound old-fashioned words but they are part of the solution to this very modern problem of alienated, angry young people.’

Jolly good show.   And our shining moral crusader  also promised to boost City academies, since they would have ‘higher expectations of discipline and standards’ than comprehensives.   There was further blather about  the ‘twisting and misrepresenting of human rights that has undermined personal responsibility’ and even the ‘obsession with health and safety that has eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense’.

Naturally Cameron  insisted that ‘ these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.’

Maybe not.  But some will, when the chance arises.

And now the Home Office has made it quite clear that the riots really were ‘about poverty’ after all, and it will take a lot more than teamwork, decency, academies,  strong fathers and ‘soldiers in classrooms’ to fix that.



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  1. Sean

    26th Oct 2011 - 8:47 pm

    Interesting set of numbers but I think everyone is reading way too much into them.

    In Sheffield they have had a pretty serious gang problem and there was no riots, you can read that both ways, that it proves gang culture had nothing to do with it or that the police and local authorities were on top of the situation and deterred riots.

    As too the figure for one in ten being in some way affiliated to gangs, well that too can also be read both ways, I personally thought that was a high number, kids dont generally get involved in gangs but like football teams they never go and see might still feel some affiliations and sympathy..Through networking 1 in 10 can certainly amplify its effects.

    I know that my son who is 15 has over 200 contacts in his mobile phone, that is way more than I would have had at 15 myself, I might have known maybe 30 well enough to need their number at that age.

    My Guess, and it is just a guess speaking to some police officers and detectives themselves, is that nationally the police have scored some big hits on gangs and drug trafficking over the last 18 months (Southampton just recently) and gangs using the network available to them summoned up willing foot soldiers in the form of poorer kids.

    I am afraid relative poverty is something you will never get rid off. As for the underclass that looks to me like the stratification of society in general. The “best” of the working class have left and now call themselves middle class.

    • Matt

      27th Oct 2011 - 6:52 am

      The Home Office figures don’t suggest to me that gangs had nothing to do with the riots, merely that they didn’t have a ‘pivotal’ role in causing them. And you’re right about networking widening participation of course, but this amplifying effect clearly applies as much to people who weren’t in gangs as it does to people who did have some kind of gang affiliations. As for relative poverty, maybe you can’t get rid of it (not in the kind of society that we have anyway), but you can certainly mitigate its effects. And if you have a sizeable chunk of society that has effectively been allowed to fall through the floor – and is still falling – coupled with a rampantly consumerist society run by a corrupt, reckless and irresponsible elite, then we can’t be entirely surprised by a bout of rioting and looting. Perhaps the really surprising thing is that it’s taken this long.

  2. Sean

    27th Oct 2011 - 6:06 pm

    Well I agree that the underclass is becoming a serious problem, all wealthy societies seem to have one, trailer trash in the USA and even the Bedu in Saudi Arabia. Since 1997 we have thrown a great deal of money at the problem with little or no effect. It really comes over to me that people at the bottom have been bought off by the middle classes through the tax system, with the elite buying off the middle classes in the form of cheap money. I don’t think its just the elite that got corrupted.

    Not sure that now we are broke we will see any more or less in the way of riots, maybe less rare as the result of technology but that will work both ways in detection and identification, which is the real deterrent.

    Anyway interesting post, lets hope we dont have to discuss it again for a long time.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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