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Why Britain is Burning

By       Message Rakesh Krishnan Simha     Permalink
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"My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I do not offer such advice because I think that stealing is a good thing or because I think it is harmless, for it is neither. I would ask that they do not steal from small family businesses but from large national businesses, knowing that the costs are ultimately passed on to the rest of us in the form of higher prices. I would ask them not to take any more than they need. I offer the advice with a heavy heart. Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift."

These are the words of Anglican priest Tim Jones, the vicar of London's St James Anglican Church, to his congregation two days before Christmas 2009. (No, Jones is not a liberal or an anarchist by any means. A staunch pillar of Britain's establishment, he once launched a tirade against yoga, calling it a Hindu contrivance and therefore, against his concept of God.)

So what made this most English of British subjects, a representative of the Christian church no less, offer an exception to the 8th commandment? Simple - desperation. As Jones noted, "The life of the poor in modern Britain is a constant struggle....a constant effort to achieve the impossible. For many at the bottom of our social ladder, lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility."

Unequal society
After decades of Thatcherism and Tony Blair's crony capitalism, the wheels are coming off the United Kingdom. According to a Wall Street Journal report, approximately 20 percent of the UK's population lives in poverty. Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper commented that "intergenerational poverty, rare in most countries today, is a factor in a notable British subculture."

That, however, is only half the picture. The increasing frequency of riots across the country is a stark reminder that Britain remains one of the most unequal societies in the world.

In 2009 the Alan Milburn Report revealed an uncomfortable truth - the previous 12 years had seen a widening gap between rich and poor and a decline in social mobility, and that children from the poorer social groups now have less chance of getting into the elite universities and the top professions than children born in 1958.

The report also showed that the 7 percent of the population who go to private schools (oddly called public schools) not only still dominate British society, but their dominance is increasing. They produce 75 percent of Britain's judges, 70 percent of finance directors, 45 percent of top civil servants and 32 percent of MPs. Commented The Guardian  newspaper: "Behind its modern veneer, British society is determined by who you know, and who your parents are."

In Britain today, there are 70 applicants for every vacancy. In a country where nexus rules, it is the kids who are not well connected who hurt must. Upper class parents, with their school and university contacts, can more easily get jobs and internships for their children.

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Perhaps the only thing Karl Marx (who incidentally cooked up his discredited theories in Britain) got right is that the most difficult thing a person can do is to break free from his class. In Britain, where your accent gives away your social standing, gentrification, or the improvement in social standing, has become nearly impossible for the underclass.

Riots are inevitable in a country where the recession threatens to produce a generation of young people who have been trying and failing to get jobs, and have lost the will to work. And it's likely to get worse; the Centre for Cities, a British think tank, projects that by late 2011, youth unemployment will nearly triple.

Political disconnect
Britain hasn't had a popular leader in decades. After the smarmy Tony Blair, it is now the elitist David Cameron's turn to rip off the country. The new Prime Minister came to power after considerable horse trading following a fractured electoral verdict. Britain is therefore governed by a party which does not command the support of a majority of voters. That both Cameron and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, were holidaying abroad and returned only after the country had endured three days of rioting, shows the disconnect between the elites and the rest. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband has stirred things up by catering to the simmering class envy in the country. He taunted Cameron about his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club, "a raucous dining club for gilded toffs at Oxford with a track record of raucous, glass-breaking, food-throwing bad behaviour."

Cuts that hurt
While the old men jaw, the young men riot, spurred by the massive cuts in government spending, the tripling of tuition fees, and the stopping of the measly $50 (approx) student stipend, especially at a time when the UK's leading corporations have indulged in massive tax avoidance.

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Much as the British elites would like to paint the rioters as unionized thugs or welfare louts, the reality is they represent the struggling middle class too. As the Guardian reported, "The young, the poor, and disadvantaged will feel the cuts chill first, especially in the most deprived neighbourhoods and regions. But the healthy and wealthy will not be immune from the erosion of public space and collective provision, whether through the closure of public toilets, swimming pools, arts galleries, museums and orchestras, or the sacking of the park rangers that keep public green space clean and safe.

A third of charities are likely to shut down, A&E and maternity units will start closing as waiting lists rise. Thousands more young people will join nearly a million already unemployed. Cuts to housing will see thousands end up sleeping on park benches and pavements.

Clearly, Britain slide towards Third Worldism isn't any slower than Ireland's or Spain's.

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based writer.

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