Saturday 10 December 2011

Archbishop of Canterbury and the Riots

When talking or writing about the causes of his summer's riots it is perhaps best to avoid the word "understanding." This word is taken to imply sympathy with he rioters and promote shrieks of indignation and vigorous assertions that it is not the rioters but the victims who need sympathy. Of course they do: no one has ever claimed that they didn't. So, in terms of Rowan Williams's very preceptive article on the causes of the riots (see the Guardian, 6th September: "We must prove ourselves to those with nothing to lose")I will think of his views as an "analysis."

The article drips with intelligent comment: "Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with adults...Too many of them feel they have nothing to lose because they are told practically from birth that they have no serious career opportunities....These are not people who live complacently in a culture of entitlement*..."

The Archbishop goes on to write of the need of dependable family backgrounds which help young people to "take certain things for granted, so that they know they don't have to fight ceaselessly for recognition" and, bless him, that "we should be challenging an education philosophy too absorbed in meeting targets to shape character." He admits that "solutions will have to emerge slowly as we try to redirect a whole culture."

There are however two things with which I disagree: actually two words. Dr Williams writes of "unavoidable austerity" ahead.

Unavoidable? As has been hammered away by Nobel prize winners Stiglitz and Krugman, ex MPC member David Blanchflower and commentators such as Larry Elliot and Martin Wolf, among others, the UK's government debt is not at extraordinary levels, we are not in the same boat as Greece and so there cuts in public expenditure are not "unavoidable," they are ideologically driven. The correct approach to avoid further recession is for the government to spend more, not less.

Austerity? I define austerity as having to ration the essentials. Cutting back on the number of foreign holidays, making the car last a little longer, reducing the number of meals out, maybe drinking Languadocian wines rather than Bordeaux is not austerity. But it is in areas such as these that the majority of us will "tighten our belts" if we need to.

Unfortunately for the past 30 years, since the imposition of monetarist policies, some fifth of our population have suffered from real austerity: they have had to make choices about the basics, and in some cases do without some of them. Alas, the government's policies seem likely to increase this proportion to a quarter.

This punishment of the already poor is quite unnecessary. There are many solutions if we are prepared to share the problem and be "all in this together." For example, the closing of tax loopholes and the imposition of a wealth tax would ensure that this quarter could be brought back into the mainstream of a very comfortable society, and at the same time could close the current public deficit about which the government claims to be so worried.

* The Archbishop is far too Christian to say so, but I suspect he may have in mind such people as former members of the Bullingdon club.

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