Yuri Prasad teases out the contradictions in Out of the Ashes, Labour MP David Lammy’s new book on the August riots
Time, it would seem, changes everything. Looking back to the Tottenham riots of 1985, David Lammy’s memories of its causes are as articulate as they are angry.
“The police,” he recalls, “seemed less like protectors and more like an occupying force. Racism was rife and it was common to be stopped, searched and often humiliated.
“There was a them-and-us mentality—we withdrew cooperation and they withdrew respect.”
But fast forward 25 years and Tottenham’s black Labour MP sees the most recent wave of rioting in a somewhat different light.
Now a “mindless few” were tarnishing the efforts of his hard-working but desperately poor flock. In 2011 there are no excuses and no political justifications for rioting, he says.
Lammy rightly rejects David Cameron’s charge that the disturbances were caused by “criminality pure and simple”.
But his own explanation for the explosion of anger in August is woefully inadequate.
He says 1960s “social liberalism” has combined with more recent economic neoliberalism to create a society without a moral compass.
This is a society in which underclass teenagers run wild and then find themselves banged up in youth offender institutions.
The blame for this, he says, lies with middle class liberals who prevent parents from smacking their children and with governments that entrench “welfare dependency”.
But blame also lies with firms that pay pitifully low wages, and the rich whose lifestyles and values are now so alien.
The best passages in Out of the Ashes are those where Lammy relates the hardships endured by his own lone mother to problems borne by people struggling today.
His own background gives him insight into and empathy with working class lives.
And he is scathing about the failures of the New Labour government—in which he was a minister—to help what he calls “the working poor”.
Lammy compares the actions of plundering city bankers to those of the looting rioters—and condemns both.
But this attempt to ride two horses cannot be sustained. When forced to take sides, Lammy is only too happy to side with the system.
“I don’t take lightly the creative genius of the market economy,” he writes. “I believe in the dynamism and opportunity that it can bring.”
And Lammy’s anger at the rich is quickly diverted towards easier and more vulnerable targets.
Too many young people, he claims, find themselves in schools that are scared to challenge their behaviour and academic performance.
As if reading from a sermon, Lammy proclaims, “Just as parents must be sovereign at home, teachers, not children, must run schools.”
Young males are singled out. They are accused of listening to aggressive lyrics, playing violent video games and then forming postcode gangs so that they can “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” The result is that children end up dead.
Here Lammy is deliberately trying to conflate two issues—and giving us insights into neither.
There is an undeniable and urgent problem of youth gangs and knife crime, particularly in Britain’s inner cities.
And it is true that most politicians do little but pontificate on the issue.
But there is nothing that links youth gangs to this summer’s riots.
In fact, a major study undertaken by the Guardian with researchers from the London School of Economics points in entirely the opposite direction. Gangs were virtually absent during the disturbances, the study found.
And, rather than being motivated by greed, a great many of the 270 rioters interviewed for the study spoke movingly and articulately of their anger at being excluded from society.
They accused the “community police”, so lavishingly praised by Lammy, of racism and harassment.
They described the way they are judged by what they own, but denied a legal way of obtaining it.
And—in joyous tones—they described the nights of rage when they found a way to hit back.
In fact, many of them talked in ways that a teenage David Lammy might have recognised.
Out of the Ashes is published by Guardian Books. It is out now for £9.99. Available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or 020 7637 1848