A bewildered shop owner in Ealing whose shop had been trashed in the London Riots, described the young people who over-ran the area as ‘feral rats’. This was an emotive term to use, but tempers and emotions have been running high, and whilst I don’t condone this language, I can understand the extreme situations which create terms like this.
The riots seem to have polarised political and popular opinion in terms of seeking explanations for the truly appalling behaviour of the rioters over the last few days. Most of us have stared on aghast as the seemingly iron shutters which we believe hold society in check melted into the thinnest of veneers and disappeared completely amidst scenes of violence, looting and thuggery. We have all been looking for explanations, and largely people seem to divide into those who wish to blame the actions of the rioters totally on the rioters themselves and those who seek some wider social and economic factors. In sociological terms we are locked into a claustrophobic debate about structure and agency. The theory of ‘structure’ emphasises the material conditions in which people live as an explanation for their actions, the ‘agency’ part the individual movitations and choices which an individual makes.
We are set for an almost endless cycle of analysis, judgements, soul searching and navel gazing over the coming months but one thing which struck me was the use of ‘Feral’ from an article I read last week. This article by Richard Murphy discusses the feral finance strategy of companies and financial organisations which are able to move large amounts of money around without reference to national borders, governments or tax regimes. We have seen feral finance tactics in the UK, an example being Vodafone wheedling out of a £6 billion tax bill. Now if Cameron is serious about fixing broken Britain, he has to get a hold of these corporations who make a mockery of our tax regimes, and instead of colluding with these (as the Labour government before had done), or turning a blind eye; make them pay their tax. Of course politicians are scared of taking on multinationals, they see them as the goose laying the golden egg; standing up to them, they argue, will lead to investment going to other countries. But the single biggest factor to ensure that investment in the UK falls off is scenes of violence and anarchy like those of the last few days so politicians have some very tough choices to make in the coming months. The coalition government has been extremely gung-ho with their insistence on cuts to public spending, seeming at times to relish being tough as they cut spending, and professing the lack of any alternatives to bring the UK deficit down and avoid the wrath of the ratings agencies. The ratings agencies themselves are the epitome of undemocratic, unaccountable organisations able at will to downgrade any sovereign debt rating, without ever having to face the very real social consequences which can result from this.
Politicians have been queuing up to condemn the looters and promise justice for those who engaged in looting. But the double standard which vows to hunt down every looter and punish them, but turns a blind eye to corporate tax avoidance will ultimately fuel the widespread impression that politicians have no empathy with the underclass and are doing nothing to help their plight. By all means we should hunt down every looter and make them pay for every single item they have taken, but let’s be equally tough on multinationals such as Vodafone and clamp down on their wrongdoing too.
I won’t insult your intelligence with a full description of what £6bn of tax could buy, but it would pay for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) at its pre-cuts rate for 12 years. Or £40 million for each and every Local Authority in England to spend on youth and community provision.