Monday, 26 June 2017

Playing politics with the public's anger could lead to more disaster - my Catholic Universe column

As I have got older, I’m sure that this happens to us all, it strikes me that it is amazing how quickly that what we accept to be normal changes.

It was my birthday this week and I am still only in my mid, some would say early, forties yet my youth seems a different world away. I can remember a time when I was old enough to be at work but nevertheless a time of phone boxes, A to Z’s, not having to worry about average speed cameras but having to worry about carrying cash to pay for parking and vending machines.

Even just a decade ago the world was very different.

It struck me this week how in just a few short years the way that we see the world has altered massively. Let me explain.

Back in the summer of 2011 my wife and I booked a summer holiday for our family; we were going to take the children to a campsite we had visited a couple of times before in Holland. The place where we stayed was an idyllic location for an annual vacation: bike hire, fairground rides, pancakes; what more could you want? We were also, just six years ago pretty much cut off from the outside world.

Now clearly in 2011 we had by today’s standards fairly primitive ‘smart devices’ but what we didn’t have was connectivity. Our campsite didn’t have wi-fi; using the telephone network to transmit data would have been exorbitantly expensive. So for a week we simply lost touch with home; millions of holidaymakers in the past had done it, I’m sure many still do.

But it is only when you have been ‘off the grid’ for a period of time, as we were then, that you realise how much things can change whilst you are away.

We caught a late afternoon ferry back from Calais and started back from Dover in the early evening. As we driving around a free moving M25, and I had finally been given permission to put Radio 5 on, we heard for the first time that, amongst other places, we should avoid the Enfield area. Coincidentally Enfield was a place I knew relatively well from working there for a period of time and we were literally just at the turnoff for the town on the motorway.

We obviously drove on as instructed and wondered what had been happening since we were away.

You will no doubt recall in that period that we had been out of the country the Metropolitan Police under the auspices of Operation Trident, a major unit that had been created to tackle gun crime and gang activity in London’s Afro-Carribbean community, had shot dead a known gangster: Mark Duggan.

After a long hot summer, and in fairness a lifetime for the many feeling that they had been left behind by society, tensions rose and for around a week rioting sporadically flared up around the country.

I live in a quite, relatively privileged, part of the world and, I am certain, can in no way claim to know what it is to live inside the inner cities that flared up that late July and early August of 2011 but it seems to me that all of the ingredients are there for a recipe of civil disturbance this summer that Britain has not seen for years.

We have seen in the past week the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire. At the time of writing it is not clear how many souls have been lost as a result of that awful incident or the exact reasons for the cause of the fire but it is entirely possible to come to a conclusion that those residents who did manage to escape with their lives were part of a large proportion of inner city society who have felt left behind and unlistened to.

We do not know at this point if cladding, rumoured to have little other purpose than making a down at heel tower block look more appealing to upmarket neighbours, was a contributory factor to many deaths; we don’t know if sprinkler systems could have saved lives; and crucially we don’t know how many other similar towers are at risk. But we do know without hesitation that many residents had been warning of their concerns for months in advance and that they felt that their worries were not being adequately addressed by those in positions of power.

In many ways the death of Mark Duggan was a trigger for the anger of the left behind, it is entirely possible that the Grenfell Tower tragedy, or even a seemingly inconsequential incident that follows it, could act in the same way.

It seems to me that in actual fact the risks and the potential for civil unrest in this summer of 2017 are even greater.

We have just come out of an election period in which the country demonstrated perhaps clearer than ever that it is divided. Theresa May asked for a clear majority and what she ended up with was something far less whilst the Labour Party crowed about exceeding all expectations.

Let me be clear: Labour and Jeremy Corbyn had an outstanding election campaign but democracy spoke and Labour lost unambiguously.

But now we hear of the Shadow Chancellor calling for marches of a million or more to kick the Conservatives out of power; we hear Mr Corbyn positing the unprecedented requisitioning of private property as a response to a tragedy and we see many on the political left blatantly seeking to make capital from the loss of innocent lives.

Look no further than Labour MP Clive Lewis who in the wake of the tragedy incited who knows what with a tweet stating ‘Burn neoliberalism, not people’.

Given the events of the past week I hate to use the analogy, but our inner cities are a tinder box ready to burst into flame and there is a real argument that our politicians are just one step away from being the spark required.

It isn’t just our politicians though who need to be more considerate at this time.

Since my journey back from Holland all those years ago the way that we live our lives online has changed dramatically. For many of us, if not most, a significant proportion of our real lives are spent on social media in a virtual world.

That virtual world is a place where we can say what we want without real repercussions. Except it isn’t. The tropes that we share online, look no further than those awful websites The Canary and Skwawkbox, are full of mistruths, exaggerations and hugely biased versions of fact which any reasonable person would dissect within minutes.

Except we don’t. We accept lies as truth, nuance as an alien world, and far too many of us promulgate the message unhesitatingly.

We must stop. Because what we share does influence people and does manifest itself as actions in the real world.

There is every possibility that sharing rubbish without thinking to someone that we potentially don't even know could well be the trigger for the next outbreak of civil disobedience.

Our country is at a very difficult crossroads. A year ago we asked the Government to negotiate a withdrawal from the EU, two weeks ago we looked to hamstring that decision.

There is a possibility that extremists calling for a hard BREXIT could be every bit as dangerous as far left protesters inciting removal of the government.

And we in the middle have a choice. We can either continue clicking on ‘share’ to perpetuate myths and calling for the downfall of democracy or we can take a step back and think.

Never has there been a greater need for grown ups. We all must choose to be just that right now.

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