Fixing Broken Britain

Gang members, like those who rioted last week, say that here are only two things will stop another flare-up: jobs and discipline.

Last Tuesday, at the height of the riots, I got a telephone call from Mash, an 18-year-old member of a Brixton gang whom I had befriended three years ago. Three of the gang are now in prison. But Mash, Lips and Bulldog, the only white member of the gang, were out on the streets last week.

Mash was watching the mob storm an electrical shop in Clapham, south London. I could hear screams and the crash of broken glass. I assumed that he had followed the others inside. Instead he was staring around in wonder. “It’s the funniest thing, Harri, man,” he confided, “There’s all these people I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. The only people we worry about is the Feds. Today I can go anywhere I like in London.”

It took me a moment to understand. Gang rivalry usually confines Mash to a few streets around his estate. What the riots represented for him was a sudden explosion of freedom. He was mixing with strangers without the fear of being stabbed or shot. Something we take for granted had left him stunned.

Lips, a small 17-year-old with a pinched face, pointed out that the looters “were not dressed for it. You can see their faces and they don’t care”. He, on the other hand, wore an oversize jacket with a hood. He gave an exclamation. Two mini-cabs had drawn up packed with looters. Only in London, I thought, do you go to a riot in a mini-cab.

Bulldog, tall and thin with jittery hands, seized Mash’s phone. I told them to go home. Bulldog said: “But you don’t get to do this every day, Harri. It’s wild and exciting. You can do it and you don’t get arrested.” There was not a police car in sight.

Hours later they rang me again. Things had got “scary”. Buildings were being set alight. Mash did not mind “hitting a jewellery shop”, but now he was calling it a night: “These are places my mum goes to.” Bulldog, too, was turning in. The couple of laptops he had “found” turned out to be broken and then were stolen by other looters. “They just pinch your stuff,” he said in astonishment From another part of south London Lips was also disillusioned. He had just watched helplessly as the pawn shop holding his gold chain was burnt down.

Last week we saw unprecedented destruction and mob rule in Britain. We witnessed a civil war without a cause. We watched terrifying individuals, hoods up, scarves across their faces, burn, loot and kill. With their ferocity and alien values they seem to come from another planet. But they do not. Like Mash, Lips and Bulldog they come from just down the road.

Last week we saw unprecedented destruction and mob rule in Britain. We witnessed a civil war without a causeAs the mess gets cleared and the courts start their process, we are left with troubling questions. What forces have created such a gulf between the mob and us, the broom-brandishing majority? How have we come to live in the same society?

Surely the welfare state was meant to protect us from the angry rapaciousness we have just witnessed. Something has gone very wrong with our young people when even Colonel Gadaffi is offering us advice. What can we do about it?

I spent a year interviewing black Caribbean and white working-class boys — the very people who have seized our streets — for a think tank report. During my investigation I met some terrifying individuals.

Sweets, for example, with whom I had tea, was a large man in a track suit and a multitude of platinum chains. As he lumbered across the room to help himself to a box of Maltesers, he explained that no policeman would dare approach him without first calling for armed back-up — even for the parking offence he had just committed. Sweets, thankfully, is now in jail.

Men like Sweets are rare. The majority, black or white, live lives similar to Mash, Bulldog and Lips either in council flats with their single mothers or on their own in a hostel. In his small and dingy room, Lips keeps his clothes in a black rubbish bag. Apart from his mobile phones he has no other possessions other than a towel and a framed photograph, both of which I had given him.

Their family lives are disjointed: a father shot, a mother who took too many drugs — “and don’t give me no love or affection”, mourned Bulldog — or had abusive boyfriends. They are always hungry and steal to eat. Lips and Bulldog live off takeaways. No one cooks for them and their hostels lack cooking facilities. Our friendship began when I took them to a restaurant.

Far from the excitement enjoyed by criminals in films, their days are aimless and dull. “It’s boring on the street, doin’ nothing all day,” Mash said. A friend had got stabbed the week before. “If we had something to do,” Lips said, “it would not have happened.”

They never leave their estate and the few streets around it. Bulldog cannot catch a bus because he cannot read the destinations. They could not attend the holiday activities I found for them two summers ago. Lips explained: “There is bare [a lot of] people out on the road lookin’ for us.”

They never go to the cinema, let alone the theatre. Until I took them, they had never visited a museum or an art gallery. They do not dare use public transport and do not know what an Oyster card is. When I want to see them I have to drive to their area. They dropped out of school at about 13 or 14 and can barely use a computer apart from Facebook.

They have a strong, moral framework — it just does not happen to be ours. They are only too aware of their situation and it fills them with despair. “I may be out of prison,” Lips said after his gang’s leader had been arrested, “but there is no way out for me.”

None of this is, of course, any excuse for the violence that has set our streets ablaze. Nor is hugging a hoodie an answer. But to set our country to rights we must understand what drives young men like Mash, Lips and Bulldog to crime and mob rule.

Ken Livingstone, the former Labour mayor of London, last week blamed coalition cuts for the riots. He forgets that Mash, Lips and Bulldog grew up under Labour. They are Blair’s babes and the left’s handiwork. It is not poverty that has stunted their lives but the policies of the previous government in three key areas: schools, work and home.

To get an insight into the rage that fuelled the riots, look no further than the statistics on illiteracy that came out the week before. At the age of 14, 63% of white working-class (a euphemism since most of them are jobless like Bulldog) and more than half of the black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven or less. Almost half of the 16-year-olds marauding our streets lack basic qualifications in English or maths.

Illiteracy is a powerful driver of bad behaviour. The US Department of Justice concluded that failing to learn to read at school “meets all the requirement for bringing about and maintaining the frustration level that frequently leads to delinquency”. This “sustained frustration” causes “aggressive antisocial behaviour”.

When he was 15, Lips told me: “I feel bad. I don’t feel good in myself. I got no pride in myself. I am angry over every single little thing. It doesn’t take a lot to set me off.”

Illiteracy is a life sentence. Half the prison population has a reading age below that of an 11-year-old. Two other members of the gang are semi-literate and are now in prison.

Being clever is almost as much a handicap. Bigs, who was good at science, started truanting when his school abolished streaming as “elitist”. He said: “I got that bored. I was given no aspirations.” At 16 he was behind bars for dealing heroin to Oxford students: “Other people go from school to university. We go from school to prison.”

It is not difficult nor expensive to teach a child to read. Countries a lot poorer than ours manage. But they use traditional methods shunned by our educational establishment.

Reading failure is just one example of how ideology comes first in our schools — the child a very poor second. What teenage boys need, according to the headmaster of one of our public schools, is hierarchy, drill, plenty of exercise, competition and discipline (why boys like Mash, Bulldog and Lips join a gang).

Unfortunately, what is well understood by private schools is dismissed by progressive educationists. No teacher should act, said John Dewey, the influential American pedagogue and philosopher, as “an external boss or dictator”.

Faced with a fidgety boy like Bulldog or Lips, teachers question what is wrong with the child or blame his background, never their teaching. Bored and frustrated, the majority of boys I interviewed had dropped out of school and into trouble by the age of 14. As Mash said: “School shatters your dreams before you get anywhere.”

Even with such dismal educational results, the previous government put the interests of teaching unions above those of their poorest pupils. Just 12 teachers out of a workforce of 450,000 have been suspended for incompetence in the past nine years.

Lips saw it as a conspiracy: “All them little jobs — special needs, social workers, police, prison officers — at the end of the day depend on black boys like us failing. If we don’t keep on failing what would happen to all those high salaries?”

The second factor is the change in the job market. Forty years ago the young men out looting on a weekday would have been in work. They would have left school at 16 and got a job in manufacturing. Now those jobs have gone.

Instead, immigration soared under Labour. Young men like Mash, Lips and Bulldog find themselves in competition with skilled and capable immigrants ready to work long hours for low pay. They lose out every time. According to the Office for National Statistics, of the 1.8m new jobs created under Labour, 99% were taken by immigrants. Since David Cameron came to power the figure is 82%.

Mash briefly moved to Brighton to try to get a job. The local employment agency told him he had no chance because “I was English”. As for motivation, he shrugged. He had seen on television what immigrants could buy for their money back home: “If I could get me a nice little house in south London, three bedrooms, a nice garden on a minimum wage, I’d be motivated too.”

The situation is compounded by the benefits system. Far from lifting these young men out of poverty, it bolts them down for good. I went to court with Mash for council tax arrears after he got laid off from his temporary agency job. The next time he found work, the adviser in the jobcentre told him not to take it. He would be £30 a week worse off than if he stayed on benefits. After that he gave up.

The third place where previous government policy has been a failure is the home. Politicians are demanding that parents control their children. What planet are they living on? Certainly not the same as Mash, Lips and Bulldog. These young men have been left to scramble up any old how. At home and in school, grown-ups are absent or ineffectual. Before going to prison Tuggy Tug, the gang’s leader, said of his friends: “I get more from them than ever I did from my family.” His first experience of spending time with adult males has been in jail.

All the men I know are in prison or deal drugs. I don’t know one man with a jobNearly every one of the young men I interviewed had a young single mother. Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe.

Despite the huge amount of evidence of the harm this causes children (mothers of children on the “at risk” register, for example, are five times more likely to be single teenage mothers), the Labour government made single motherhood an attractive proposition.

Since 1997 a single mother of two children has seen her benefits increase by 85%. We watched the effects of that policy play out on our streets every night last week.

To accuse these young girls of being feckless is unjust. They are merely responding to the economics of the situation. They are as much victims of the crisis in our schools and the perverse influence of benefits as teenage boys. What future is there for a girl who leaves school without a qualification? Whereas boys take to crime, girls get pregnant.

Ministers talk of family breakdown, but there is no family to break down. More than half of single mothers have never lived with a boyfriend. The state has taken over the role of both husband and employer.

How can the issues that have caused the devastating scenes last week be fixed? There are plenty of practical things to be done. Here are just a few examples.

School is where young people spend the majority of their time and encounter the majority of the adults in their life.

They are our one opportunity to make a difference to boys like Mash, Lips and Bulldog. This is not going to happen while heads and teachers believe Dewey’s dictum that “they are not in school to impose certain ideas or form certain habits in the child”.

This attitude has had a disastrous effect on boys from a disadvantaged background. One teacher from an inner-city school complained to me: “I have really gifted black boys who can’t communicate. You see them struggling. It is quite often the reason they get really upset and frustrated.” Yet he thought it “patronising” to try to correct them.

If we want young people to share our beliefs then we must have the confidence to articulate those beliefs with authority. Unfortunately too many institutions and individuals have lost that confidence.

The young men I interviewed interpreted this failure by authority as a failure to care. Mash recalled: “We got away with making drug deals in class. They knew what we were doing but they did nothing.”

Lips said bitterly: “Not one teacher cared about me. You know when someone cares for you because they are on your case.”

Bulldog summed it up: “They didn’t have a lot of respect for us and we didn’t respect them.”

Apart from school, the one thing that would transform the lives of these young men and stop them taking to our streets is a job. They talk about it all the time. “One hundred per cent in my heart, I want to get working. That’s the bottom line,” Lips sighed. But a job for them, even before the recession and the riots, is as distant a proposition as going to the moon for the rest of us — and they know it.

If these young men are to have a stake in our society then we have to create jobs. It really is that simple. Many of the problems over which we wring our hands — drugs, gangs, not to mention an awful lot of crime — would melt away.

Take just one example: single mothers. Mash’s older sister, a single mother of 22, admitted she would love to get married: “But all the men I know are in prison or deal drugs. I don’t know one man with a job.”

We cannot continue to warehouse generation after generation of young men without a repetition of the scenes we saw last week.

Nor can we continue to indulge the failing institutions that deal with these young men. Seeing jobcentres and social services from the point of view of Mash, Lips and Bulldog is an eye-opener. We wonder why these boys do not buy into our society. It is because their only experience of our civic institutions are places such as jobcentres whose complexity, indifference and incompetence would have made them at home in Stalin’s Russia.

After three days of trying to get Bulldog, Lips and Mash a job, of queuing, form-filling and getting nowhere, I finally exploded. The boys led me out. Lips said: “I told you this place fair gives you a headache. That why me and the others do the robbin’, innit. We don’t like coming here.”

Recently I met an official from the Department for Work and Pensions. How did it judge individual jobcentres, I asked. She looked puzzled. “Well, they are always very enthusiastic when we visit,” she said. I suggested she go with the boys. She looked pained. Finally she admitted the department had no idea which jobcentres actually found jobs or how many. It did not even have an internal league table.

We saw scenes of terrible violence last week. There are always going to be men like Sweets shocking us with their brutality. The tragedy is, we are turning a large number of potentially decent young people into misfits and criminals. Of the six boys I met three years ago, three are already in prison. They are only 18. All are costing us money.

It does not have to be like that. Their lives have been wasted for no good reason. Mash recalled how in primary school “I got all them little reports saying how well I was doing”. His mother kept every single one. He sighed: “Those days are gone.”

Wasted — The Betrayal of White Working Class and Black Caribbean Boys by Harriet Sergeant is published by the Centre for Policy Studies

Sunday Times | News Review
Published 14 August 2011

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