U.K.'s broken social contract blamed for riots

The spark that lit riots in Britain last week is rooted in the government's radical alteration of the social contract with its citizens, says a Toronto psychiatrist who was born and raised in the U.K.
People pray for unity in the community on Aug. 11, in Tottenham, north London, where the riots started. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

The spark that lit riots in Britain last week is rooted in the government's radical alteration of the social contract with its citizens, says a Toronto psychiatrist who was born and raised in the U.K.

People at the lower margins of society feel abandoned and powerless to the point where they lash out in fear, says Dr. Kwame McKenzie.

British society is undergoing a psychological realignment along American lines rather than traditional European values, where there is a straightforward social contract between the individual and the state, he says.

"It is about changing the relationship between government and the citizen. Essentially they are rewriting the social contract so that people are more self-reliant and less reliant on government," he says.

Dr. Kwame McKenzie is a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. (CAMH)

"So rather than rely on a public pension, you should have your own. Education is less about a resource for the nation, than it is a personal investment. You get a university education to help your career and increase the money you make rather than [the value that] an educated population is good for the country and we all benefit. It is a change to smaller government using the U.S. model, but that is not the European way."

The upheaval in Britain is also linked to a culture of entitlement that is part of the original social contract, he adds. People in the U.K. have a very set idea of what it is the state owes them, and change from that is difficult.

"People are being asked to move from a socialized tradition to a market economy where it is dog eat dog."

Social cohesion breaking down

McKenzie's research specialty at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto is the social causes underlying societal problems. He grew up in Ealing, a suburb of London, and immigrated to Canada four years ago.

He describes three factors at play in the riots that arise from a rewritten social contract.

The first is the breakdown in social cohesion — the glue that keeps people thinking about "we" rather than "me" and stops people from looting your shop because it's part of a community and we're all in this together.

"What's happened in the last 30 years in the U.K. is increasing income inequality similar to what you find in America, and that affects how people think about society and about each other," he says.

"There is a huge amount of evidence that the greater the gap between rich and poor, your social cohesion is undermined."

McKenzie calls the inequality, which leads to greater criminality and lower educational attainment, a "social cancer."

Financial crunch

The second factor is the government's austerity measures.

Until 1997, university education in Britain was free for everyone. In 1998, the government brought in fees of about $1,600 per year for tuition at the country's top universities. By 2012, that figure will be about $16,000. At the same time, the financial assistance given to needy students was eliminated.

"So that route out of poverty has been taken away," says McKenzie, who not only got a free medical education in Britain but also received a government stipend to cover living expenses as was customary at the time.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg blamed the violence on thugs and criminals. ((Matt Dunham/Associated Press))

Unemployment in Britain has doubled in the last five years, which leads to more people being ill, and frustrated.

"The system used to be able to cater to the less well-educated. Unskilled jobs would catch the people who did not do so well at school. Those jobs are now gone abroad and there is no replacement," says McKenzie.

"Governments are disengaging and leaving it to the market. But the market has a history of not bothering."

At the same time, the government cut the health-care budget by 25 per cent and raised the sales tax from 15 to 20 per cent. All of these changes tend to affect people of lower socio-economic status more because they have fewer resources to cope, says McKenzie.

"When the goods are dangled before them and then the means of accessing them are removed, that is dangerous."

A third factor, he says, is that people increasingly feel they have no voice in how their society is structured.

Moreover, all of this is happening against a backdrop of global recession and conflict in the Middle East.

Ordinary Britons, McKenzie points out, feel "How come you can't bail out poor people but you bail out banks? How come you haven't got the money to fund the NHS [National Health Service] but you're dropping bombs on Libya which is costing billions?"

"It fuels the growing frustrations. It's not just this government, it's been successive governments that have presided over this social experiment."

Post-colonial attitudes

Like Britain, Canada is a nation of immigrants, but newcomers here don't have the same "quasi-paternalistic" relationship with their adopted country, or the same sense of entitlement, making riots here less likely, says McKenzie.

Although there are reports there was a racial element to the disturbance, television footage shows a cross-section of people from inner-city London and other cities. There is no clear profile.

Immigrants to the U.K. arrive mostly from post-colonial countries, so the relationship has been long-term, says Dr. Kwame McKenzie. "They see England as the mother country. They're there to make money for their masters. It's a quasi-parental relationship."

By contrast, "when people come to Canada they're coming to the land of opportunity, they're coming to a new land to build. There is no historical context," he says.

"First- and second-generation immigrants here do not feel they are owed anything, so they have not factored it into their level of frustration."

That's not to say that Canada is completely immune to such problems. Although the economy is relatively stable now, there is a growing disparity between rich and poor, particularly in urban centres in Canada, which is worrisome and needs to be dealt with, says McKenzie.

Notions of responsibility

McKenzie says he finds it disturbing that politicians in Britain have taken no responsibility for the chaos.

British Prime Minister David Cameron blamed the riots on "the mindless selfishness" of looters while Nick Clegg, the country's deputy prime minister, called the violence "opportunistic theft."

"It seems to me they're a bit like my sons used to be when they were found with broken toys in their hands and they said with wide-eyed innocence, 'I don't know how this happened. I had nothing to do with this,'" McKenzie says.

"Well, it's broken and it is your responsibility."