Sweeping change: riots and the Big Society

Sweeping change: riots and the Big Society

Sweeping change: riots and the Big Society9

Governance | Robert Ashton | 10 Aug 2011

The recent riots have done more to illustrate the concept of Big Society than the government has achieved since the last election, says Robert Ashton.

The ravaging hordes of lawless youngsters, pillaging, torching and hurling bricks have given us all an alarming insight into the mindset of the disaffected. We all realise, with some discomfort, that if the rioting escalates, there is actually little the police or army can do to prevent it. The veneer of civilisation is far more fragile than any of us care to admit.

As Camila Batmanghelidjh wrote in the Independent the other day: "Many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing."

I guess you could call this parallel world ‘small society’ because it is local, territorial and exclusive.

In the Guardian recently, I compared Big Society to the turbulence of puberty, with outbreaks of spots and hot teenage anger. I wrote this before the riots and am not surprised they’ve taken place. It’s little different to those adolescent attacks on parental authority that manifest themselves as wild parties and broken windows. It’s also a sign that our society is waking up to the reality of tomorrow’s world.

I call our future the ‘Big Reality’. We know we cannot continue to spend money we don’t have, to consume material resources that are fast depleting or abdicate our individual responsibilities as citizens to inefficient, bureaucratic and at times heartless social care provision.

Remember the story a few weeks ago about the aged ballerina, now left in nappies at night because it’s cheaper than helping her out of bed and on to the toilet? She actually went to Court to force her local authority to provide night time care and lost.

In fact we can no longer afford to leave it to others to do our dirty work. We have to lean to care for our own elderly, to take an interest in our neighbourhood and those with whom we share it. We have to encourage the young to listen to the old, to appreciate a past they would find unbearable and see that whilst not perfect, their world today is pretty much OK.

It’s been proven countless times, that when people start to connect, understand each other and take a pride in their surroundings, mental health improves and health and social care costs fall. I guess Cameron would feel it insensitive to leap up and cheer when people took to the streets with shovels and brooms. Neighbours perhaps meeting for the first time, as they strive to repair the damage left by the previous night’s riots. But isn’t this exactly the concept of true, selfless volunteering he’s been talking about for months?

Let’s hope they don’t stop working together when the mess has been cleared up. There’s lots more they can do. New community organisations can emerge from the wreckage, public buildings transferred to community ownership and most importantly of all, the disengaged and disaffected gradually encouraged back into society.

The riots mark a turning point in our journey. We’re growing up, moving on from the turbulence of Big Society and rising to the challenge of our Big Reality opportunity.


Sarah Spellman
8 Sep 2011

OK then - how? Where does this new, transformative cohesiveness come from? How do we do it? I haven't heard a convincing explanation yet and somehow I doubt I will (prove me wrong, though!).

As Tories gleefully dismantle the state and public services withdraw, what's left to fill the gap? Those well-off, well-meaning people who have the spare time and energy to run a social enterprise, a school, a library and their nearest roundabout do not live in the areas that are most in need of intervention and services.

If you are working for the minimum wage in Ladywood or Handsworth or Lozells, for example, how likely are you to feel motivated to do your Big Society bit, especially when you see that those who caused the financial crisis are doing as well as ever? And will we see busloads of villagers from the previously-commented-upon Chipping Norton coming to Birmingham to give us all a hand? I'm not holding my breath.

As for the ballerina, I have a novel idea. What if we had properly-funded public services meeting the needs of vulnerable people, instead of relying on patchy charity provision and good neighbors to (if you're lucky and you live in the right area) fill the gap? Just a thought.

Richard Trengrouse
25 Aug 2011

I am looking forward to the all night courts in Chipping Norton, and the evictions that will follow.

Peter Baxter
retired economist
19 Aug 2011

How to solve or Worlds Economic woes.

The problem with all our world economic problems was the collapse of the housing market brought on by corrupt banks swindling their customers.
This can never be solved by governments pouring Taxes to prop up these Banks.

What we need is a stimulus to the housing market and I would do this in two ways.
First give tax incentives to builders and make land available from government land for redevelopment.

Secondly; we need mortgages which guarantee the buyer that in the event of a collapse in his house price, the difference will be paid upon sale of that property to the buyer from an insurance company. A new type of insurance of protected mortgage also the availability of work protected mortgages.

This can be government protected like the Banks are government protected and I would make these mortgages available throughout all the banks.

Any costs involved could be paid for by selling off all social housing.

This scheme will within five years have the economies of the entire world growing again.
It will also bring confidence back to the financial markets.

It is possible to build eco friendly houses for around 50,000 and if government land is freed up for this, we can look forward to prosperity for everyone.
Because every ones homes will start inflating and not just bank profits

Peter Baxter

Peter Baxter
14 Aug 2011

Rob a bank and you get 10 years The Bank robs you and they get a seven figure pension.

Factors that contribute to rioting are population size, the breakdown of respect for social order, poverty, the lack of opportunities for personal advancement and Debt.

Today the people that led the world into debt by their corrupt practises within the Banking, Insurance, and Financial sector have been reappointed by President Obama to head his financial team. No one has been brought to justice for the debt all the world is now paying and rioting about.

All the banks had AAA status just before they collapsed from Standard and Poor the same people who have just downgraded USA economy?

University Professors who advised the governments were working without declaring their paid interest for these corrupt banks etc. just before the crash.

If you check the facts you will find a transfer of wealth from the poorest to the top one percent and these crooks are still running all our economies.
This was achieved by getting companies like standard and poor to give false assessments of bad debt which was then sold to our pension funds as triple A.
Whilst ever these crooks go unpunished and are rewarded by huge golden handshakes and top government jobs, riots will get worse.

We all have a remedy it is our vote and a free press.
Make sure you give your vote wisely and all the politicians who supported crooked bankers, insurance companies, are swept from power.
To the press it is time to expose these crooks. Name and Shame

Paul Kingsley
12 Aug 2011

The veneer of civilisation is thin indeed. Rulers since the dawn of history have exercised power by one of two means - co-option or oppression. Recent generations in the West have grown up in societies offering enough opportunity to stay more or less co-opted for most of the time. But as co-option is seen to fail amongst certain social groups we risk our governments turning ever more openly towards pure oppression of the underclass that comprises 'benefit scroungers', 'feral youth' and others. Much of the 'respectable' public will support this, just read the riot reactions in the Daily Mail. But look at some Latin American countries (amongst too many possible exemplars) for what happens when there is runaway polarisation of society into co-opted 'haves' and the oppressed 'have nots': gated and machine-gun guarded ghettos for the wealthy, lawless favelas for the poor; vigilante justice. We can't allow this to happen here. Of course it's difficult - honest hard working people deserve and expect the state's protection. In the very short term maybe there aren't many options for the state other than to 'crack down'. But then there has to be a reaching out and a rebuilding based on a message of humanity and hope. And I just hope that there'll remain a majority of civilising people whose ideas will prevail over those who would see the underclass 'managed' through ever greater oppression. We elect our rulers, that's also worth remembering.

11 Aug 2011

I don't think the riotwombles would agree with you there.

Junie Tong
Director of Studies
Centre for Teaching in Management
11 Aug 2011

The recent riots were just the tip of an iceberg. Riots have been happening or can happen in different parts of the world where distrust and disengagement take place. This, in fact, reflects that a society is disconnected with or disintegrated of business, financial and political activities.

What has been happening here in England tells us that we really need to renew and transform our values embedded in 'so-called' capitalism.

Hunor Kiraly
11 Aug 2011

"Let’s hope they don’t stop working together when the mess has been cleared up."
I must tell you: they will. Unless WE (civil society) don't do something to keep the thing going.
I know this because I'm Hungarian. In 1989 and 1 or 2 years after it people worked together on change. They were enthusiastic, they enjoyed working together. We took it for granted, did nothing to keep it going.
And now we live in the most ignorant society in Europe. Our government is cutting back democracy, and nobody cares.
We must build a culture. Of cooperation, volunteerism, civil society. It's a lot of work, a wave of enthusiasm (like now) is helpful, but just a tiny help. It is still a lot of work.

David Filmer
Managing Director
10 Aug 2011

Very perceptive.

Let's hope that it marks a change for the better for society.


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Robert Ashton

Robert Ashton is a social entrepreneur, campaigner and author.

Robert is a vice patron of Norfolk Community Foundation and chairs Human Library UK CIC.

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