The contrast between the euphoria of the Olympics and the riots that were in full swing exactly one year ago could not be greater. It’s hard to believe this is the same London and the same Britain.
For me the moment of the Games so far was the extraordinary reception for Mo Farah, in the race and on the podium. Real name Mohamed, an immigrant from Somalia, a Muslim, a Hounslow state school boy, he suddenly became a great British hero. After the ludicrous criticism of the opening Ceremony by an ignorant Tory MP and some Tory media, the huge support for every competitor, whatever their origin, has reinvented multiculturalism. You can be a British Somali immigrant, of mixed race from Sheffield, a girl from Stratford, a boy from Kilburn or from the playing fields of Eton, nobody cares and, when it comes to sport, everyone is equal in the public estimation.
My normal answer to the question what do you think about multiculturalism is that I think it would be a good idea to give it a try. Despite all the talk, it was pursued half-heartedly and blown off course by the gale of fear called Islamophobia. The key idea of multiculturalism was very simple: that you can be British and black, British and Irish, British and Somalian, that you can be British and support India at cricket, that you can mix cultures and respect all, and that British society should be open and flexible enough to celebrate all of the diversity this brings. It was an integrationist philosophy but it challenged the notion that Britishness is a narrow vision of an all-white English village with a cricket square and a pretty church. The nadir was reached when Cameron misrepresented multiculturalism as ‘segregation’, and claimed that it was responsible for forced marriages and fostered extremist ideology, directly contributing to home-grown Islamic terrorism.
Most of the retrospectives on the riots have been sensible, focusing on the alienation of young people of all races and creeds, their frustration with the police and poor prospects, and the triggers that led to criminal behaviour. We have not had repeats of the initial attempt to scapegoat black people and council estates. Owen Jones’ series for the Independent and an Inside Housing piece on the role of communities and local agencies were particularly good.
Even the normal repugnant Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph offered a serious commentary: ‘what’s surprising is how little change there has been. With the country in Games rapture, and the only flames in London now of the Olympic variety, the incredible events of last August seem, like the victims, to have fallen out of public consciousness. Their impact on policy, and politics, has been minimal. ….. Youth unemployment is 12 per cent higher this summer than it was at the time of the riots. But the austerity drive is hitting much more deeply now. The procedure for investigating police killings seems as sclerotic and ineffective as ever. More than a year after the shooting by police of Mark Duggan – whose death sparked the Tottenham riot – his family are still no clearer how it happened.’
Meanwhile Communities Secretary Eric Pickles seems to only rejoice in the size of the sentences handed out to those arrested, still talking vacuously about mindless criminality and rehearsing the corrupted statistic that the Government is ‘going into the homes of 120,000 of the nation’s most troubled families to address root causes.’ He has nothing to offer to the debate.
Austerity for the poor. The stripping out of services and facilities for the young. Stigmatisation of people who can’t get jobs or require state benefits. Growing poverty and inequality. The Olympics serve to illustrate what ordinary people born into poor circumstances can achieve given the right support and opportunities. A year on from the riots, nothing has been learned and nothing has changed.