This label seems to be what people use to explain and, in some cases, justify antisocial behaviour, crime, benefit dependency and the sickening rioting and looting we have seen in recent days. Lack of opportunity and prospects, poverty, rising tuition fees and the like have all been put forward as factors behind the shameful actions we have all witnessed, either first hand or on TV. To be brutally honest, this kind of apologist view – not just from young people involved, but from youth workers, parents and even some politicians – sickens, saddens and angers me almost as much as the rioting itself.
Why? Because it is another example of the way that so many people in our country have forgotten or deliberately abandoned the concept of individual responsibility. We hear all the time about rights, and what people have the right to do, think or receive from the state, but we hardly ever hear of responsibility. I am not so much talking about responsibility to a community, to live within the law, pay taxes and be decent citizens, although that is, of course, vital. What I mean is individual responsibility – the responsibility that each person has for their own life, for their own development and success, to provide for their own family. What we have seen in recent days is nothing to do with making a political stand – I never yet saw a credible political philosophy that involved kicking in the windows of electrical stores to help yourself to the latest gadgets – and everything to do with an unwillingness to face up to individual responsibility. Of course, there are legitimate social and economic factors that can cause and increase disaffection, but when people are prepared to take individual responsibility, these can certainly be overcome. Certainly, national and local government have their share of responsibility too, but the biggest effort will always need to come from the individual. Whatever happened to the idea of working your way out of poverty, starting at the bottom, getting your hands dirty for a low wage but the dignity and satisfaction of knowing you are providing for yourself and your family, and maybe working towards a better future? I believe anybody who tells me these are impossible dreams for young people in modern Britain is wrong. How do I know they are wrong? Partly from personal experience.
I grew up in a mining community. The mines and related industries were the heartbeat of the town, and provided employment for a huge number of people. Higher education, moving away and having a “middle class” job were rare, even treated with suspicion. But that had to change. Let me tell you, when the coal mines were closed, taking all those livelihoods for current and future generations, there were not a whole lot of alternatives around. My dad was unemployed for nearly a decade despite his best efforts, while my mum tried to do what she could working two or three jobs, in shops, on market stalls, cleaning, whatever it took. And trust me, the prospects for young people such as myself looked very bleak, the jobs were gone and we knew they were gone for good. We never had a youth club to be closed down by government cuts either, just in case anyone wants to trot out the bizarre “they’re causing trouble because the council closed the youth club” line. Reason to be disaffected – you bet. So did we cover our faces, put our hoods up and smash up businesses, stealing whatever we could from we cared not who, intimidate decent law-abiding citizens and fight with the police and emergency crews, like some of our 2011 counterparts? Of course we didn’t. We got on with things and did our damnedest to improve our situation. I worked weekends and holidays in a shop as soon as I was old enough and, if I didn’t have enough for the stuff I wanted, I saved for it. I studied hard at school, well enough to gain a good university place, other people doing likewise to gain employment. And did I get a free education? Not entirely. While I admit the fees were paid then, I had to get student loans (five years’ worth, for a four year course with one year repeated due to illness), which I only finished repaying a couple of years ago. And in my final year, a real financial struggle, I was working 40 hours a week in a bar and studying during the day. In summers, I did all kinds of crappy jobs just to keep a bit of money coming in. No minimum wage back then either, you did whatever you could find, for whatever they wanted to pay you.
This is not meant as a “look at me, aren’t I great, I didn’t resort to looting” piece. When all is said and done, I can only speak from my own experience, but there were plenty of others like me at school and in my town, and plenty from similar situations in other towns when I got to university. My point is that lack of job prospects, poverty, cost of studying etc. is not a legitimate excuse for rioting or any kind of antisocial behaviour, nor does it excuse a willingness or even desire to rely on benefits. By all means, be disaffected if you find yourself in this situation – most people would sympathise with your position and a surprising number of the “middle-class” figures you claim to loathe and whose businesses and homes you now want to destroy will empathise, as they started out where you are now. But for god’s sake, take responsibility for your life. Stop telling us about how your rights are being violated. Nobody has the right to a well-paid job, the latest fashions and electronic goods, handouts from the state instead of working, and a free pass to ignore the law of the land if you feel you have somehow been wronged. You have to take responsibility for achieving things yourself – work for your own future, rather than expecting it to be handed to you on a plate, invest time and energy into studying, starting a business or creative arts. Being unable to find a job that pays a rapper’s or footballer’s wage doesn’t mean there are no jobs for you, it means you have unrealistic expectations. It takes years of hard graft to achieve a good living, let alone a celebrity lifestyle. By all means, be frustrated about where you find yourself, but channel it – not into crime or even a determination to get all you can out of other people’s hard work, but into thinking about how YOU (not other people, YOU) can go about changing things and giving yourself the best future.
What the past few days have shown me, above all else, is that we need to get back to a society where hard work and decency are rewarded, and away from what we seem to have now, a society where the person who shouts the loudest and grabs the most from other people’s efforts is rewarded.