The Queen has just spent four days celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. She did so in what they call grand style. Good for her. She is a good stick. She cheers up the people of England, the family she heads generates tourism, and she does kindly deeds for benevolent causes.
She is also our head of state. Don’t worry, as a republican I am not about to use the occasion of her 60-year reign to reheat the dusty old arguments for constitutional change. We had our chance in 1999 and we blew it. In the absence of any mainstream political will to revisit the issue, we are stuck with the Queen and her heirs for a very long time. Our lives as Australians are not materially different for that fact, even if that fact is anachronistic and jars with our national belief in meritocracy.
What interested me more about the Diamond Jubilee was the image it presented of England itself, and what a sad and sorry joint it has become.
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In the midst of the UK riots last year, The Punch was one of many Australian media outlets which offered a series of thoughtful pieces as to why the riots occurred. No one was big-headed or stupid enough to offer a single definitive cause, for the very good reason that there wasn’t one. But we added what analysis we could into the great public melting pot of opinion.
At the time, our efforts attracted scorn from the ABC’s self-appointed media guardian Jonathan Holmes. “It’s all so clear from the other side of the world,” he harrumphed on Media Watch.
Not to gloat or anything, but it turns out the media was right and Holmes was wrong. A report handed down by an independent government-appointed panel overnight in Britain entitled The Verdict on the UK Riots, shows that many of the causes posited by Australian journalists and commenters were spot on.
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Five days of crime and chaos. Beginning in London and later spreading to other parts of England.
The temperature first started to rise on August 4, when police shot dead Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old from Tottenham, one of London’s poorest areas. Then, on August 6, an at-first peaceful demonstration in Tottenham over the shooting turned violent.
The situation spun out of control. Petrol bombs were thrown at police, fires were lit, looters pillaged shop after shop, home after home. Over the following days, looting and rioting spread throughout London, and then throughout the country.
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Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late US senator, ambassador and statesman, caused widespread consternation when he released a report in 1965 about the disintegration of the negro family in America.
Sub-titled ‘The case for national action’, Moynihan’s report argued that without jobs, negro men would become alienated as husbands and fathers, leading to family dysfunction and breakdown, increasing out-of-wedlock births and sole parenthood, declining education outcomes and entrenched poverty.
“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history; a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationships to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.
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The Left blame welfare cuts and the moral failure of society’s leaders. The Right blame the bludger mentality and soft policing. As usual, the truth is more like c) neither of the above.
Some have portrayed the riots through the social frame of family decline and fatherlessness, while others viewed it through the racial lens, before hastily backtracking when they saw white faces beneath the hoods.
While many of these viewpoints point to a general sense of unease and frustration among a section of Britain’s youth, none of them explain why half of England ended up looking like a Boxing Day sale where someone forgot to open the store doors, with shoppers forced to smash their way in.
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I have a regular segment on a community radio station in Sydney that often takes its subject matter from listeners’ email requests.
Unsurprisingly, this week I received a number asking me to explain the causes of the London riots.
My initial response was that the causes are complex, and we should ignore the many knee-jerk reactions emerging.
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Child psychologists everywhere will hate me for what I am about to say but I hope they take a good long hard look at what’s going on in England and think about how they’re teaching modern parenting.
In light of the riots in England, stories about the evils of smacking are a load of bunkum.
I’m old fashioned when it comes to raising my child. I’ve smacked. I admit it.
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I’ve been dwelling a lot on parenting this week – not least because my eight-year-old son walked around with a badly broken arm for two days before I got him X-rayed.
In my defence, I was advised to delay the X-ray by nurses at a regional emergency department. But at the very least I could have refrained from suggesting he was the boy who cried wolf.
It was in this sort of mood that I heard the news about federal Finance Minister Penny Wong and her partner Sophie Allouache expecting a baby through IVF. The child’s father is known to the couple and will also be known to the child.
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In trying to identify the causes of the London riots, we could start by reflecting on the comments from former Greater London Council police advisor Lee Jasper in analysing the mindset of the youths on the streets.
In a finger-pointing monologue on The 7.30 Report on Tuesday, Mr Jasper argued that the one group of people who should definitely not be blamed for the riots were the rioters themselves.
“We’ve seen huge levels of austerity cuts in many inner city areas that are leading to a great deal of anxiety and concern,” stated the one-time advisor to former London Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone. “Unemployment continues to rise and there is a sense of anxiety but also a sense of moral crisis in the country. I think because of the MPs scandal, the corporate tax dodging issue of huge multinational companies, the News International corruption cases with the metropolitan police and phone hacking, there is a kind of failure really of people in power to uphold the kind of moral standards that we all aspire to. And as such, this has had an effect around the country.”
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Watching the chaos over the past few days, it has become clear that what is happening in London boils down to the have-nots pillaging the haves.
The riots are no longer just about the shooting of London resident Mark Duggan by police officers.
The partner of Duggan has denounced the riots, saying they are now far divorced from the protest that started it all:
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This morning, my wife and I packed overnight bags and left East London for work, not knowing if the area would be safe enough to return to it in the evening. There is a 15-minute walk from the tube station to our house (right past the shiny new Olympic site…), and there’s every chance that walk could be filled with violence, rioters, muggers, police and burning buildings.
Overreaction? No. Last night we watched in amazement on TV as several districts around us, then all around London – then all around the major cities of England, turned into arenas of chaos, violence and looting. And flames.
News helicoptors flew from one enormous blaze to another, all night. England has seen nothing like this since Hitler was bombing us. From our lounge, we could hear the sirens all night.
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“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” the English lit great Samuel Johnson famously once said.
A whole bunch of people seem to be tired of London life lately. Or at least intent on mindlessly smashing the great city to pieces.
The past 72 hours haven’t been pretty. The Guardian is calling it the Battle of London. We’ve seen pictures of double-decker buses overturned and engulfed in flames. Looters smashing their way into stores. Rioters hurling planks of wood at bobbies. Buildings that survived two world wars destroyed by rioters.
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