Saturday, July 24, 2010

Britain’s summer of discontent By: Neil Berry

It has been a febrile summer in Britain, one in which the country twice made world news thanks to random outbursts of murderous psychotic rage. In June, a depressed middle-aged taxi driver named Derek Bird went on the rampage in the northern county of Cumbria, shooting dead 12 people before killing himself. Weeks later, in the neighbouring county of Northumberland, an embittered 37 year old ex-prisoner called Raoul Moat provoked fresh national horror when he opened fire on his former girl friend, shot dead the policeman with whom she was living and then blasted another policeman in the head, robbing him of his sight.

Notwithstanding a massive police operation to apprehend him, Moat, in contrast to Bird, remained on the lose for seven tense days, lurking in storm drains, threatening to kill more people and issuing confused messages to the effect that nobody loved him and that he had no reason to live. With the massed ranks of the media descending on Northumberland, he briefly figured as a sort of reality-television outlaw until he also took his own life after being encircled by police marksmen who fired electroshock laser guns at him.

It was Moat’s outlaw status that evidently turned him into an instant folk hero in the eyes of an astonishingly large number of people. On Facebook, tens of thousands found kind things to say about him, despite—or perhaps even because of—his being a killer who had taken the life of a policeman. If anything, the sentiments of Moat’s Facebook ‘friends’ occasioned more horror than the dreadful deeds that inspired them.

It seemed somehow surreal when, within days of Moat’s killing spree, it was reported that under the Labour government that fell from power in May, crime in Britain had been steadily falling. Campaigning to become the new leader of the Labour Party, the former minister, Andy Burnham, was quick to say that Labour could be proud of its record on crime. Yet the truth is that the country that Labour bequeathed to Britain’s new Conservative-Liberal coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron, is not only mired in debt but brimming with disturbed and potentially violent people.

Britain has more prisoners than any other country in Europe; sections of its youth routinely carry knives; family breakdown and divorce grow more common; and there is vast and rising incidence of alcoholism, drug abuse and mental illness. It’s also the case that there are eight million or more ‘economically inactive’ people in Britain, with the greatest concentrations of them in northern areas that have suffered badly from the de-industrialisation of Britain.

It is in acknowledgement of all this that the Cameron has spoken of ‘broken Britain.’ In a keynote speech on domestic policy last week Cameron proposed to remedy Britain’s ills by persuading people to become more community activists in the cause of the ‘big society’. It must be said that many believe this is little more than a gimmick, especially since his government’s programme of drastic public expenditure cuts is likely to undermine the very charities and voluntary bodies his ‘big society’ is meant to encourage, dependent as they are on state subsidy.

Still, Cameron is right to call attention to Britain’s desperate social malaise. What makes the malaise all the more alarming is the visceral, imperceptive character of much of the response to it. Many of the observations on Raoul Moat and his well-wishers were woefully devoid of insight. One prominent right-wing pundit described his well-wishers as ‘thick scum’. Others, meanwhile, argued that a sense of proportion needed to be kept about them. But is striving for a sense of proportion really appropriate when vast numbers feel impelled to make a martyr of a murderer? It seems more pertinent to acknowledge that Britain has a huge and unruly social underclass who gained little from an era during which the successive ‘New Labour’ governments of prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown talked much about ‘inclusiveness’ while pursuing neo-liberal economic policies that were experienced by many as brutally exclusive. Now, following the severest economic downturn in decades, the anger and despair and contempt for authority that are already pervasive in deprived parts of Britain seem destined to become even more extreme.

In the coal mines on which bygone industrial Britain depended for its prosperity, singing canary birds were deployed to sniff gas and thus forearm miners against the danger of an explosion. It is possible to feel that Derek Bird and Raoul Moat are human canaries, warning of the potential emergence of a ‘society’ in which crazed and apparently gratuitous acts of violence become all too familiar. Yet few are prepared to entertain the possibility that the aberrant behaviour of the two men might have an intelligible explanation—that what they did might have had more than a little to do with Britain’s harsh and divisive socio-economic system.

It may even be that Bird and Moat’s eruptions into wanton savagery have a wider message. For Britain has embraced a way of life that is but an extreme version of a neo-liberal trend that spans the globe. Championing unregulated free markets, British governments have forged a country of inordinate inequalities, where insecurity is rife and self-seeking individualism—typified not least by politicians, the very people who are supposed to epitomise public service—is rampant. Dynamic such a system may be, but a price is paid for its dynamism in the proliferation of social casualties, mentally unstable ‘losers’ who may prove a danger to themselves and to others.

The irony is that while British state has become increasingly obsessed with the menace to national security posed by militant Islam, it is indigenous white Britons with no obvious political grievances who have terrorised their fellow citizens this summer. If Britain faces the threat of Islamist terrorism, and it does, it is also at risk, it turns out, of being terrorised by unhinged natives who have no relationship with Islam whatsoever.

Neil Berry is a UK-based writer. For comments, write to

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