Riots tell us nothing much

As Managing Director of a Walthamstow-based social enterprise and a former employee of an award-winning Haringey-based youth media charity, I feel well enough placed to report that I’ve studied the recent panic on our streets and concluded that these events tell us little of interest about either the state of our country or the policies of our government. They also don’t tell us much about social enterprise.

Other than actions of those directly involved, if any one factor is causally responsible for what happened then it’s the unavoidable prevalence of 24 hour news. I think it’s unlikely that rioting would’ve got anywhere near Gloucester without the blanket coverage of what was happening in London and Birmingham. I’m sure someone French will have a series of points to make about this.

While (or if) I’ve got your attention, though, it may be worth grasping the shoehorn of justice to make an implausible suggestion as to how the onset of a nationwide bout of aggressive light-fingeredness clearly confirms the need for one of my company’s products or services. So I’d like to point you in the direction of One in Four – our national magazine by and for people with mental health difficulties. While the evidence so far is only anecdotal, as far as I know reading the magazine has never incited anyone to lift a flat screen TV.

Social enterprise leaders have had their own points to make. Writing on the Guardian website and her own blog, Social Enterprise London chief executive, Allison Ogden-Newton outlines two possible reactions to the rioting: “Maybe there is no sense, maybe all we need are tens of thousands of police on the street, CCTV cameras on every inner city street corner, or do we go a step further and create proper no-go ghettos like Harlem and the Bronx in New York, where access to the poorest black neighbourhoods are announced by burnt out blocks and gapping demolition sites that separate the taxpayers from the great unwashed. Or do we think again, and do whatever has to be done to get people into work.

She goes on to highlight the potential role for social enterprises in making things better: “Social enterprises such as Livity in Brixton, which has worked with over 1,000 unemployed young people to access jobs in the media, or Catch 22 which turns around the prospects of no-hope kids in Haringey. Recently we have been told that we cannot afford such interventions, but after the last few days and perhaps with what is yet to come, can we afford not to?

Social Enterprise UK‘s Peter Holbrook also has his say noting that: “We have created in our towns and cities  communities of young people that are hopeless – lacking in hope. A generation that believe that they can only command dignity, self value and the  respect of their peers by what they are able to wear and consume, a generation that has aspiration but no belief in their abilities to achieve the celebrity lifestyles that are so aggressively marketed to them, represented across our media in magazines, sports pages, advertising, news, film and tv.

He goes on to suggest that: “A more balanced and plural economy with social enterprise at its heart will not only radically improve the way public services are delivered but could create the opportunities and most importantly, hope. Opportunity, mobility and hope offer the only real solutions to what the recent violence has highlighted – social dysfunction on a grand scale.

Both are right, in that the changes they suggest would make things better but there’s a danger of setting social enterprise up to fail if we claim that we can deliver a society where people no longer want to nick stuff. We need a more just and sustainable economy because it will lead to a society that’s better for us all to live in but that won’t, in itself, stop people from wanting to smash shop windows.


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14 responses to “Riots tell us nothing much

  1. Well David, as you say, it reached Gloucester the city nearest to me and in the next village, a youth earned his 15 minutes of rural fame by calling a riot on the local Spar shop. Meanwhile in a faraway city, a pioneer of social enterprise died “in the field” and largely unnoticed.

    In 2004 that pioneer and I got together on a proposal for social enterprise which drew on his earlier work to raise awareness of the increasing disparity in wealth and the risk of uprisings among the disenfranchised. Our relationship began with his 2003 fast for the US to sign the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

    In our proposal he wrote “Whilst the vast majority of people in poverty suffer quietly and with little protest, it is not safe to assume that everyone will react the same way. When in defence of family and friends, it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world. People with nothing have nothing to lose. Poverty was therefore deemed not only a moral catastrophe but also a time bomb waiting to explode. Poverty reduction and relief became the overriding principle and fundamental social objective in the emerging P-CED model”

    Based on a proof of concept project in Russia, the approach had led by 2004 to the creation of 10,000 micro enterprises in circumstances of extreme poverty and food shortages One of the first to receive a copy of the proposal in 2004 were Social Enterprise London, who were encouraging but unable to help. Likewise, it fell on deaf ears when we joined the SEC in 2006.

    Creating a more just and sustainable economy was in fact the starting point with a suggestion for an alternative economic paradigm. A call re-iterated in recent years at the international Economics for Ecology conferences in Sumy.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not surprising that we see those who consider themselves excluded from perceived social norms taking to looting. They’re not looting for food, but the icons of consumer capitalism, which is of course where the problem had been identified in the first place.

    if the like of us are disregarded and excluded, what hope is there for the disenfranchised we’re trying to help? What hope for humanity, if one dies in the effort, without comment?


  2. There were riots in ’81 across major UK cities – well before 24hr news. And despite attempts to impose a distance between the supposedly more political riots of the 80s, much thh same thing happened then as now – theft of desired goods, property damage, violence towards police and member of the public.

    What are the similarities between then and now? Well, an economic policy that tolerates youth unemployment – meaning more young people with time on their hands, some likely to drift into a criminal lifestyle through involvement with gangs.


  3. admin

    Yes, I’m not suggesting 24-hour news is an overall cause of the rioting. I’m saying it’s a cause of it happening on consecutive days in lots of different places.

    I think the difference between these riots and the ones in the 80s is that – admittedly based on not being old enough to think anything much about them at the time – is that the 80s riots were based on frustration building up gradually in particular areas then coming to a head (at different times).


  4. Quite right David, Being born and raised in the Brixton area, I was well aware of the heavy hand of policing on the black community. I well remember for example a friend of our family relating how an SPG officer had pulled up his son’s head by placing his fingers in the boy’s nostrils. It took just a spark to ignite the flames.


  5. We all get a bit misty-eyed about this in my view. Tony Blair nailed it on Sunday when we pointed out that the problem is structural and common to most developed countries. He is also right in saying that it is specific to a particular group and has specific solutions. If we can admit this we have a better chance of getting to grips with it. Councils spend millions each year on families like the ones where gang members come from – to no avail. It is low-no impact. We have to make that spend actually count. At the other end of the scale we have to make life very uncomfortable for people who scare the shit out of the majority in any given neighbourhood. If you give the ground to gangs, you immiserate a whole area. Therefore more robust social action and very muscular treatment of gang-leaders and repeat offenders so that they are taken out of communities they are terrorizing. Go on flay me – but you need a balanced approach here.


  6. “I’ve studied the recent panic on our streets and concluded that these events tell us little of interest about either the state of our country or the policies of our government. They also don’t tell us much about social enterprise.”

    David I have to take you to task on the above and particularly regarding government policies and social enterprise. I think the riots do tell us a lot about both.

    Leaving government and SE aside for a moment though a basic truth is that the rest of us (those that didn’t riot) don’t care enough about the less well off in our society. The recent riots have been very uncomfortable for many people because we have been forced to confront the fury of those that feel disenfranchised instead of doing what has now become a long habit, ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away.

    We walk around the rougher neighbourhoods, we tell our children to and we leave those neighbourhoods out of our collective consciousness. The people in them scare us and we just hope and pray they don’t walk round their corners and come anywhere near our own front door. If they do we reach for our phones, call the police and report someone suspicious!

    As far as governments of all persuasions are concerned they have never got to the root of a problem we all know exists and one that has existed for a very long time.

    20 years or so ago I would have been involved in both the rioting and the looting. Given the opportunity I would have thrown a few bricks and looted a few shops. Why? Because it would have been a victory in a life that was a series of failures. It would have been my win/win and all of those kids before the courts now who wont say that to either their probation officers, police or heaven forbid the magistrate will feel the same. (They may tell their therapists if they could actually get one!) After the event they would have been having a great old time with their mates comparing spoils and talking about how enjoyable it had been to hit a policeman on the head with a brick that night.

    So what is of interest David is how on earth have we created a political system that omits the interests of a rather large percentage of our population and why have we put up with it for so long? Do our politicians not have a responsibility (their current favourite word) to manage all of our interests and continually strive to do so rather than just a section of us?

    As for social enterprise I’m afraid it is of no interest to me at all if it does not do something to help eradicate this type of disenfranchisement. If it does not as a movement have the faith, the courage and the will to get into these areas, to tackle poverty whether relative or aspirational and try to make a difference then there is no difference and it will be business as usual.

    We might not see these kinds of disturbances again for a very long time but unless we deal with the root inequality, indifference, despair and criminality that is behind it all then we will see them again and every time we do they will become more widespread and violent.

    I agree with much of what Craig says above. It is structural and there have been millions thrown at these areas (thrown at because we wouldn’t want to get our hands dirty going in there now would we) to no avail.

    Diane Abbot said once in a speech that for all the money spent on some of these rougher areas (think she was talking about Hackney) we would have got much more out of it if we had just stood on street corners handing out bags of cash. She was right!

    There are people of great potential in these communities and we have not seen fit to listen to them, nor have we seen fit to invest in them. I fear we will continue to look at them as problems to be solved rather than resources to be developed and therein lies our failure.

    It is a collective failure, a failure of government, a failure so far of social enterprise (though this is where I put my hope) and it is a failure of every single one of us who continue to put up with the status quo!

    Sorry if this is a bit of a rant but I’m like Jeff this stuff makes me angry. Thankfully due to finding the right kind of support when I needed it I’ve found better ways to express that anger and have been able to make a contribution to society rather than throwing bricks at it and stealing from it.

    I mean come one, we’re a nation of great inventions we’ve given much to the world. We can find solutions to this stuff. We just don’t have the collective will!

    As for 24 hour media and social media well that has provided new tools that help share the emotions and yes spread the expression of dissatisfaction, and what does the government do? It looks at how it can suppress those emotions and expressions instead of creating positive outlets for it. A strategy doomed to fail and create more of the same!

    jeez i could write a book about this stuff but I’ll let you off for now!!


  7. admin


    You raise lots of important points. I’d like to look a bit more at this one:
    “There are people of great potential in these communities and we have not seen fit to listen to them, nor have we seen fit to invest in them. I fear we will continue to look at them as problems to be solved rather than resources to be developed and therein lies our failure.”

    I think it would be difficult to argue that the people of Tottenham (an area I know well and worked in at various points between 1999 and 2006) suffered from a lack of state cash flowing into their communities in the 1997 – 2010 period.

    Is the problem that the investment that went into areas like Tottenham during the New Labour period was spent on the wrong things? Or that you can only main civil peace by maintaining similar levels of spending forever?


  8. admin


    “Councils spend millions each year on families like the ones where gang members come from – to no avail. It is low-no impact. We have to make that spend actually count.”

    Are there any good examples of councils that have managed to do that?


  9. Hi David,

    “Is the problem that the investment that went into areas like Tottenham during the New Labour period was spent on the wrong things?”

    To be honest David I don’t know what levels of spending went into Tottenham though I have no reason to doubt the assertion that it was a lot.

    I do think it was probably a case of who the money went to and how the money was spent. It would be interesting to see a breakdown.

    Was there an attempt to support the community in building anything long term and sustainable for example? I would guess that the mentality of giving that money was similar to the mentality of giving for purposes of foreign aid and didn’t teach anyone how to fish! This is where I see a role for social enterprise or for the stimulation of entrepreneurial projects and locally owned businesses.

    I also think there’s a fundamental problem in the way we actually perceive these communities that needs to be tackled.

    One thing I believe most strongly is that it is the community itself that holds the answers and for those interested in helping we need to think about how we can help them find their own answers rather than impose them.


  10. I’ve always found some kind of affinity with Martin. Not from my own experience, but that of my recently deceased colleague and founder Terry. What he brought to the table in 2004 as I described above, derives from his 2003 fast as a homeless man living in a tent and calling for US government to sign the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. His success can be measured in the foundation of the Center on Poverty Work and Opportunity in the town where he fasted.

    Recent events sparked a memory of South London where several years ago there was a midnight arson attack on the house adjoining mine. Apparently a disagreement and reaction which didn’t consider the impact on those nearby. I’m proud to say that at least four of my neighbours in Pendle Road, ran out to deal with the problem. I was far less impressed with a detective in a T-shirt who turned up days later and made the remark that he wouldn’t want to live in the area. Mentioning this to a friend, he replied saying that what that officer should have been saying was, that if he lived in the area this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

    By coincidence it was the same household but a different resident that was targetted in a car jacking, perhaps a year or so before. Again the neighbours responded but this was a different scenario. The resident just happened to be the private secretary of Charles Clarke, then Home Secretary. Suits arrived to interview me and others and the perpetrators were apprehended within days.

    Social enterprise has likewise been deployed selectively, such that the consequence is more about rhetoric – conferences, think tanks, than giving those at the bottom the means to help themselves. As if ‘opine the change you want the see in the world’ is the order of the day. Look at what Charles Leadbeater is now say about cloud computing, localism and reforming capitalism. That’s where it begins as far as we’re concerned.

    My colleague who died in the effort last week, made our purpose clear.

    “This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for “people-centered” economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether”.

    “Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first — not secondarily, along the way or by the way. ”

    We can consider the riots a warning on trying to stage manage innovation. What we’ve seen here however pales into insignificance when one looks outside our borders to see the kind of human rights abuse that is being turned a blind eye to, in the name of social enterprise and the kudos of being seen to champion it. I invite you to read what I’ve related a the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in this week’s discussion on Skoll Social Edge.


  11. admin


    Two of the big recent investments in Tottenham were SRB (Northumberland Park) at one end of the High Road: and (The Bridge) New Deal for Communities at the other:

    I wasn’t directly involved with SRB but did some work with New Deal for Communities. Lots of bits of it had a positive impact but I’m not sure about the overall effect. The problem with all (or most) area-based regeneration work is that it’s usually based on the premise that paid professionals working in an area have failed to get things working for decades so the follow-up idea is to ask local people to volunteer their limited spare time to solve these deep-rooted problems for free.

    Another problem is that in many areas that received regeneration funding the only major player was the local council – not necessarily through their own choice but because there were no other major employers or no large voluntary sector organisations.

    Even when, as in most councils, councils are run by decent, well intentioned people, it’s a problem if there’s no other groups in an area that have the muscle to put forward alternative points of view and get listened to.


  12. Hi David,

    I read those two links and thanks for providing them. I didn’t see any mention of social enterprise in them which was interesting and they don’t tell you much about the actual details of the projects and how they worked.

    I’ve no doubt at all that some councils are run by decent well intentioned people, probably all of them are but it seems that what is needed is a cold hard look at the structures of delivery of regeneration funding to some of these areas.

    We need root and branch change in the way this has been traditionally attempted and we need a wholly different mindset and attitude to the communities affected and individuals within them.

    I feel the social enterprise movement needs to have a strong input into future discussions around how to revitalise some of the more deprived areas and I believe part of the solution must be to stimulate the growth of businesses that are run by the community for the community.

    And as I said earlier we would do well to change our mindset from the current one of “these communities are problems that need to be solved” into “these communities are resources that need to be developed”

    As a group of “non rioters” or “responsible members of society” what might be the most productive collective attitude we can take to those who participated?


  13. Personally I found the discussion on Newsnight last night quite enlightening regarding the riots. When the chap who introduced his friends that had took part in the rioting spoke about the feeling of power that came from ‘walking past a policeman with a stolen telly in your hand knowing they couldn’t do anything’ he hit the nail on the head.

    If the feeling on behalf of the rioters was one of gaining power it is easy to see then what they feel they lack. The power to change/improve their circumstances, opportunities and living conditions? Is their honest feeling that they were in some way redressing the balance? I think it is and I think we ignore this feeling at our peril!

    Will we really as a society address this feeling fully? I very much doubt it from what I’ve heard so far. All I’ve heard are ways of swinging the pendulum even further in the wrong direction!


  14. Pingback: No future | Beanbags and Bullsh!t

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