Riots: Have Faith in the City

‘It’s history repeating itself.’ The words of the former Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, Tim Brain, on the radio on Monday morning. He looked back to the 1980’s and the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Bristol, Birmingham and other places – including Broadwater Farm in Tottenham – very close to the area where this week’s events were sparked off last Saturday night.

We seem to have spent a lot of this year so far hearing about events in the world which are like history repeating itself:
The financial crisis seems to be having a re-run with echoes of the 2008 credit crunch – and earlier crises going back to the 1980’s or even the 1930’s.
The allegations about Rupert Murdoch’s undue access to politicians brought reminders of way press barons like Beaverbrook and Northcliffe sought to influence governments during the last century.
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa bring to mind the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, and the way in which dictators in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere were tolerated – and often encouraged – by the major Western powers.
The famine in Horn of Africa sounds very familiar – so much like the situation which led to Live Aid in 1985.

History is repeating itself because lessons were not learned and the necessary action taken. How often do we hear politicians and the media say: ‘This must not happen again.’? Sadly it does.

But the biggest story on most of our minds this past week has been the rioting and looting in London and other cities. In his radio interview Dr Brain went on to say this about the 1980’s: ‘There was a lot of social deprivation around, and a lot of complex and linked causes that created social disorder. We’re seeing specific police actions spark incidents. It doesn’t mean the police action caused them, but they sparked the incident. And then we see things gather a momentum and they go slightly out of control for a few days. In the meantime there’s a lot of damage, a lot of destruction. People are hurt – sometimes seriously.’

The riot at Broadwater Farm took place in October 1985. Two months later the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, launched “Faith in the City: A Call to Action by Church and Nation”. The report came out of concerns about what was happening in British cities and the growing gaps in society which had become painfully apparent in the riots in 1981 and 1985. It was carefully and thoughtfully prepared by a group of twenty people with many different areas of expertise. They made 61 recommendations – 38 of them to the Church of England and 23 to the Government and Nation.

“Faith in the City” was rubbished by certain government ministers, one of whom was reported as dismissing the report – before it was even published – as “pure Marxist theology”.  Another Conservative MP claimed the report proved that the Anglican Church was governed by a “load of Communist clerics”. It did, indeed, prove to be uncomfortable reading for the government of the day. But, according to the late Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, these attacks did have the benefit of making ‘Faith in the City’ famous.

The Church itself took the report seriously. It set up ‘The Church Urban Fund’ and began to put extra resources into what it called ‘urban priority areas’. It is still heavily committed to serving the communities of inner city and outer fringe housing estates.

After the riots of the 1980s, we also had the Scarman report – commissioned by the government. This too looked calmly and thoroughly into the root causes of the trouble. Recommendations were made and some were implemented. But we still have the huge inner-city estates and suburbs where unemployment and social problems are rife. It seems likely that these are where many of the looters and vandals have come from in the last few days.

So the problems have not gone away – in fact they have got worse in the last 25 years. All governments have failed to find any long-term solutions. The gap between rich and poor is growing. Youth unemployment is at record levels. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated and that society has failed them?

This in no way excuses the sort of behaviour we have seen on our televisions this week. Most of it was purely criminal. But we have also seen encouraging positive responses as communities have come together to clean up their area and to help the victims.

The week’s events have thrown the focus back onto areas of deprivation – of which we have quite a number right here in Gloucestershire. The immediate priority was, quite rightly, to regain control of the streets. But now a real debate must begin about reducing poverty and unemployment; about improving educational standards in failing schools in deprived areas; and about strengthening and supporting family life.

Speaking in the House of Lords on Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, hoped that some good could come out of this: ‘People have discovered why community matters.’ he said. ‘This is a moment which we must seize – a moment where there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity, sufficient awareness of the resources people have in helping and supporting one another, and – in spite of everything – sufficient hope for what can be achieved for the governing institutions of this country, to engage creatively with the possibilities that this moment gives us. And I trust that we shall respond with energy to that moment which could be crucial for the long term future of our country and our society.’

So – we all have a part to play in this. We are all responsible. We must try to understand and to learn. There’s a saying attributed to the Spanish writer George Santayana: ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’
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