Edition number 45; dateline 6 September 2011
Will the legacy of the summer 2011 be the legacy of the summer of 2012?
Close behind news of the summer rioting season that engaged parts of London and other towns and cities across England came an announcement from Hermès that it cannot keep up with demand for its premium-priced luxury goods. This came on the same day that the football transfer window closed and followed coverage of a number of super-wealthy individuals in the US, France and Germany suggesting that highly privileged individuals such as themselves should perhaps be paying a little more tax in these troubled times. This suggestion met with a swift response from the UK where the right-wing thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies went to great lengths to explain why the wealthy must be protected at all costs. With no sense of irony they expressed the view that “in the long term taxes on the rich can hit the less well-off most”.
The UK government’s response was predictable but with the occasional surprise thrown in, as if with the temperature in the political kitchen rising a Conservative government felt compelled to bring out its tried and trusted signature dish – a great big plate of blame and retribution – but spiced with some unexpected ingredients – a few lumps of brazen stupidity – to convince its diners that they were not being served leftovers from previous social disturbances. It was simple criminality, said almost everyone who found themselves in front of a microphone. The prime minister started it and the message was soon picked up by the independent judiciary who kept sending people to prison until there was no prison left.
Soon the debate moved on and Michael Gove was able to explain why his oxymoronic ‘free schools’ initiative would be good for troubled communities and why newly redundant former members of the armed forces should be able to take their carefully honed killing people skills into the classrooms of the nation to teach everyone else’s children about leadership and self-respect. Not to be outdone, Eric Pickles, the community secretary built and named in the fashion of a minor Dickens character, explained why new planning regulations that would allow anyone to build anything anywhere, if they had sufficient profit motive to get the thing done, represent an excellent opportunity for bowls clubs, the members of which represent all that is good and best in our communities, to take over riot-ravaged rough ground and build a bowling green. It was as if Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor had reached retirement age, dressed head to toe in white and dropped acid: “It’s a scorched piece of wasteland in Tottenham: let’s build the bowls club right here!”
Other responses came from the people outside Westminster. Peter Crouch had a haircut on Tottenham High Road but the look on his face and the fact that the barber had to find a box upon which to stand suggested that it was not a regular occurrence. Mass clean-up campaigns sprang from the Twittersphere, bringing brooms and much needed bonhomie to the streets. Paula Radcliffe commented on her progress towards London 2012 from of her home in Monaco, safe from the twin threats of social unrest and taxation. The Today programme asked the prime minister what the difference might be between members of the Bullingdon Club smashing the windows of restaurants in Oxford and members of a disaffected, unrepresented generation smashing the windows of shops in London. We were all reassured to learn that there was all the difference in the world.
The wonder of it all, of course, was not that riots broke out on the streets of towns and cities across England but that it had taken so long. Such luminaries of the revolutionary approach to politics as Nick Clegg and Mervyn King [See editorials passim] had predicted as much and, in the case of King, wondered why people were not getting on with it. With riots having started, the wonder was that they ever stopped. The prime minister was struggling to explain the disturbances and damage in terms of both ‘Broken Britain’ and ‘the Big Society’, getting himself tangled up in his vowels as he made a vain attempt to square this particular political circle. However, the clean-up was probably more representative of most people’s experience of life in our towns and cities, just as most people, while condemning acts of violence, theft and arson out of hand, were able to accept that there are more causes at work than simple criminality.
As the buildings smouldered and windows were repaired, there was much talk around Westminster of the need for an enquiry but of course none will emerge. Politicians demanding that something must be done all know that the answers would be exactly the same as those proffered after the riots of the 1980s, a report that would make uncomfortable reading for modern-day monetarists, neo-conservatives and the selfish rich. The conclusions of that report could perhaps best be summarised thus: a functioning society requires investment. It is not solely about finance but there has to be an acceptance that society exists, that it requires work and commitment to make it happen, and that there is a value to everyone’s life experiences, no matter how strange or different they might seem to a privileged onlooker.
Are there lessons for the government? Probably, but few will be learned. The most pressing is that society – this bizarre web of checks, balances, constraints and conventions – that make it possible for a huge number of people of all kinds to live on a small island in relative harmony is very finely balanced. Ignore it or handle it carelessly and it can break very quickly. And when it breaks, it is remarkable how quickly the tears in the fabric of society appear on your street.
Are there lessons for the sport, leisure and culture sector? Perhaps but few outside the sector are listening to our thoughts. There is the usual demand for investment in cultural and sporting opportunities for young people but there are only so many times that the leisure sector can say “I told you so” and derive any pleasure from the words. While the riots have provided yet more evidence in defence of investment in sport, leisure and culture, this will be easily ignored by politicians because there is no coherent, or even audible, voice representing the sector’s interests.
With autumn moving in, we are left to wonder: what will be the legacy of the summer of 2011? With no one in the sector able to find the levers of power let alone try to pull them as they focus on their own small patch, political expediency and a fully functioning government PR machine will paper over, whitewash and simply turn its back on the root causes of the riots, almost guaranteeing that they will happen again. With Olympic security sucking in diminished police numbers, don’t be surprised if the legacy of 2011 becomes an intergral part of the legacy of 2012.
letter from the editor
The Leisure Review editorial