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If there’s one good thing that has come out of the riots and looting in English cities this week, it’s that it has brought out the parent in society.
The shock, outrage, fear and heartbreak at the destruction did not result in a society that wallowed in self-pity and impotence, wondering when a paternal state was going to come and sort things out and make things better. In fact, if anything, society, local communities, found that there was very little point depending on the state, whether police or politicians, which only proved itself to be as vulnerable and fragile as a little child.
Instead, come Tuesday morning in London and later in other cities, members of local communities were out in force cleaning up the mess, offering support to victims and the emergency services, protecting neighbourhoods from further looting. A number of social media initiatives, such as @riotcleanup on Twitter, sprang up to work with councils and the police to find out where ordinary members of the public could go to help out. ‘Local’ didn’t just mean your neighbourhood or borough, but even your own city and, for some, county.
Next to the parental society, the vague pronouncements, unsatisfiable promises and unthinking diagnoses of a “sick society” and “broken Britain” from politicians seems absolutely childish. Indeed, I would argue that calling society sick or broken is an insult to every person who got knee deep in broken glass (literally and metaphorically). I might also add that the looters’ own justifications for their actions made them sound more educated than the politicians.
This is what the Big Society is about. The reference to size is superficial, in that parents are bigger than their young children. But it doesn’t mean a retrenchment or shrinking of the state. Instead, for children to be big like their parents means to take on the responsibilities of being an adult and being a parent, which includes holding their own young children to account. A Big Society is a Responsible Society, not one that is absolutely dependent on a childlike state.
It was ironic that the police were practically pleading for parents to find out where their kids are and to bring them in. Whether this worked or not is unclear but it perhaps it was an indication as to the proper relationship between society and the state.