It’s the sound of the police

Much has been written in recent weeks about the alienation of young people from society. I’ve already explained why I think this is a parental issue far more than a societal one, but I’d also add that it’s actually quite difficult to bring young people into the (big) society fold. Young people (and by this I really mean teenagers) are not exposed to many of the important issues that are faced by adults. As a teenager, you are shielded by your parents, or at least you should be. You shouldn’t need to worry about getting a job, renting/buying a house etc, and the people that you deal with on a day to day basis (your friends) aren’t ready to contribute much to society either, and this is exactly as it should be. Teenagers are often by nature non-conformists; they’re keen to rebel, albeit usually in a harmless way, against their parents, teachers and polite society in general. Very few people dress like they did when they were a teenager, and listen to the same music; many of us take up, and then give up, smoking as teens. This is all part of growing up; it’s doesn’t suggest any fracture within society, but teenagers are always going to exist on the margins of society – there’s plenty of time for them to become their parents later on.

When one becomes an adult, it’s far easier to define yourself as a useful, upstanding member of society. But what does one have to do to achieve this? I think that most people would agree with that the following is key: be employed, and to earn one’s keep, ideally in a job where you are clearly performing a useful role in society, and not earning far more than perhaps your contribution would suggest is reasonable.

I think most people could suggest a job that fits this criteria (nursing, teaching), and could also suggest some that would not (banking). One job that clearly fulfils the above would be the police. It’s a job with difficult hours, the pay is reasonable but no more, it’s essential to society.

So why do we continually run down our police force? Why have the policemen and women become the target for such criticism and marginalisation from all angles?

To quote examples – lack of riot training/riot equipment for police to deal with the recent troubles, major Government cuts to the police, accusations of police brutality (Ian Tomlinson), accusations of police timidity (London riots), people spectating at the riots in London, the goading of the police by rioters more interested in capturing evidence on their phones than making a political point. Even the title of this piece is taken from a piece of music criticising police brutality, though the real meaning of the song has been lost amid the amusing siren sounds, and though none of us pay any real attention to them, the sentiments can become lodged. None of us are surprised to hear Dr Dre’s line of ‘so muthaf*ck the police’, and none of us are shocked as we would be were he criticising an ethnic minority, or women. There is an inherent need for young people to rebel, but should we still be doing the same thing against our police force as adults?

The most obvious contrast from the police would be the British Army. My brother was an officer in the cavalry for a decade, and has since joined the metropolitan police. I’ve never had the conversation with him, but I suspect that he’s quite surprised about the difference in public feeling towards the two (fairly comparable) roles. The British Army are often referred to as heroes, and the charity ‘Help for Heroes’ is now one of the richest in the UK. How about a similar charity for police officers wounded in the riots? Would there be a similar outpouring of national feeling (and cash)? Maybe it’s because the Army are sorting problems in foreign lands, where the local people there deserve all they get, and maybe here our natural inclination is an anti-authority standpoint where we regress to our teenage feelings of rebellion towards those that enforce polite society, but it seems like a confused message to give.

So who feels more alienated from society – the teenager, who has yet to have the chance to contribute, or the police officer, providing a vital role than many of us wouldn’t do for twice the money, and being pilloried by the very society that they protect?

I predict a riot

Actually, I didn’t predict the London riots, but at least I had the excuse that I was abroad, on holiday. Whilst I was away, I watched Question Time on the BBC Parliament channel (it’s amazing that I have a girlfriend, isn’t it?), and from listening to those sage political commentators, you’d be convinced that each of them had predicted these precise events a long time ago. Many of them (Prescott, Paddick etc) spoke of a kind of inevitability about the London riots, which was surprising, as no-one to my knowledge had warned the country of this powder keg about to blow at any point before certain areas of the capital were on fire, by which time most people would agree that it was a little late. The shocking events of last week are made even more shocking by the fact that they came as a surprise to most people.

Public (and media) reaction has broadly fallen into two wildly simplistic categories. The liberal view is that we have a mass of young people (mainly young black males) that have been ‘failed by society’. This failed by society line (henceforth to be known as FBS) is trotted out often, but no-one has yet to give a satisfactory answer as to what it means. Still, it sounds good, and it gave the Guardian a chance to wheel Russell Brand out to emphasise the FBS point. Mr Brand clearly gave so many soundbites after the death of Amy Winhouse that he’s now required to comment on all major news stories. I await his coverage of the US presidential race with baited breath. Back to the main point, but in what way has society failed these young rioters? One news channel suggested that it was the fault of the ‘nice things’ industry, which has created ‘must-have’ items such as iphones and D+G clothing. The theory is that young people cannot afford these things, therefore their self-worth is defated, meaning there is nothing left for them to do but smash things, and nick things. Does anyone actually believe this is the truth? There’s lots of things that I can’t afford (a yacht, for example), but you won’t see me down at Brighton Marina at midnight in a hoodie, making off with someone else’s.

Having nice things doesn’t make you happy and content. These young people are angry because they don’t aspire to anything, and the majority of the fault lies with the parents. Quality parenting is about setting your child up well for life, and guiding your child as best you can until you are able to remove the stabilisers, and they are free to make their own way in society. This usually means some form of understanding of what is right and wrong, a respect for your fellow human beings, and a little bit of education along the way. Is that too much to ask? Only yesterday, my hairdresser was bemoaning the fact that so many of her friends are pregnant (they’re all about 21, and the babies are unplanned in general; I did a bit of research). Why are these people so happy to have kids, when they’re generally so unhappy with the raising them properly bit? True satisfaction comes from earning things: not having them given to you, and not from nicking them. There’s a good message from which to start. Labour were totally wrong in the assertion that 50% of people going to university would be a good thing. In fact, fewer people going to university would be a good thing, and more people doing apprenticeships and learning a trade would be an even better thing. All young people have talents, and the sooner they find out what they are good at the better.

On the flip side to the liberals and their seeking to justify this behaviour comes the ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ brigade. Those that think it’s reasonable to lock up two morons from Cheshire for 4 years each for trying to incite a riot via facebook. I don’t know what’s more tragic, the long sentence or the fact that nobody came. This knee-jerk reaction attempts to placate a public that is baying for blood, but we cannot allow public opinion to override rational decision-making. Handing out over-tough sentences as an ‘example’ has been proved not to work; someone isn’t going to refrain from hurling a brick through a window because the sentence length for criminal damage has increased by 33% in recent times. We need to consider the root causes of this anti-social behaviour to prevent it – to cure the cause, not to hammer the consequence.

We are a confused country. Are you proud to be British? Am I? Do we know what it means? The spectacular failure of Cameron’s Big Society suggests that the Thatcherite ideal of greed is good still looms large over the country. Better parenting to start, more opportunities for kids to learn a trade early, less emphasis on having to go to university (fewer universities even) and far less exposure for Russell Brand.

That can’t be too tricky, can it? Or maybe Huxley had the best idea after all?