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British underclass

world Updated: Aug 16, 2011 23:37 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

No sooner had rioting broken out in London on Aug 6, than popular news websites began to fill with commentaries that sought to pinpoint the epicentre of the tsunami to the British underclass.

What is the underclass? The independent Office of National Statistics does not recognise the term, but it is commonly understood to mean those who lie at the very bottom of the socio-economic heap. In Britain and the US, these would include the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, welfare-dependent single teenage mothers, young people in crime, school dropouts, and the illiterate and unskilled.

It is probably what David Cameron means when he says parts of the British society are “sick.” The New Labour government under Tony Blair had a name for it — NEET (not in education, employment or training) and aimed to reduce their numbers by 20% by 2010.

In 1989, the controversial libertarian American political scientist Charles Murray was invited by the Sunday Times to study the problem. He reported back that yes, Britain, like the US, did have an underclass. It was small but growing. “By underclass I do not mean people who are merely poor, but people who are on the margins of society, unsocialised and often violent,” said Murray.

In 1996 New Labour came in with the promise of a bright new day. The economy boomed. But Murray returned to find that the percentage of young jobless men had jumped by more than half from 20.5% in 1989 to 31.2% in 1999. The problems of the underclass, he said, were driven by the failure to socialise the young, which in turn was driven by the breakdown of the family.

This is possibly why Cameron, in the aftermath of the riots, has been stressing parental responsibility and family values – much like Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. In 2010 there were 1.9 million single-parent families with dependent children in Britain, representing 26% of all families with dependent children.

But Murray’s analysis — let alone the American solution (“we just locked up so many people… the crime rate had to go down”) is not something the Left will warm to. Their argument is that by targeting single-parent families you are effectively saying that you have to be married to have children, which turns the clock back on liberal Western societies.

The only way to devise meaningful strategies is for policy makers to listen to the voices of what Murray calls the “unfashionable part of town.”

Many of them are in denial and blame government policies for causing family breakdowns, but not to listen would risk watching a gigantic social problem fester away in a city where the rich and poor often live cheek by jowl.