The majesty of the Olympics really has struck a chord with the UK over the past two weeks. This has to be down to the fact that we as a nation have absolutely no confidence in our sports stars. With good reason. Every year The Sun would ask “Can Tim win?” when it came to Henman at Wimbledon and every year the answer a firm “no”. Every four years we drape ourselves in red and white and pray to God that England don’t end up going to a penalty shoot out. And every time, our overpaid, over valued, and under achieving footballers let us all down. I get caught up in this myself. So, on the rare occasion that our sportsmen and women actually out perform even our most positive of expectations, a cynical nation suddenly takes notice. And so it was. Jessica Ennis’s utterly spectacular performance at the Heptathlon. Greg Rutherford came from nowhere to take the Men’s Long Jump Gold. Mo Farah became a national treasure for his outstanding performances to take the double Gold in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres. Team GB is third in the rankings, the highest we have achieved since 1920. Our sports stars have a lot to be proud of, and i’m sure they will lives in the celebrity spot light are just beginning.
The organisation, the happy faces, the atmosphere in the country has been buzzing after months and months of grim economic news on a daily basis. And yet, through all the delight at the success of the Games, I cannot help but feel slightly uneasy at the comparisons between the riots in London last year, and the Olympics this year. There are of course comparisons that can be made arbitrarily if we must; both the success of Team GB, and the riots last year caught everyone off guard……. and that’s about it. Comparisons shouldn’t be made between the two.
I keep hearing phrases like: “London needed this, after last year“. As if it is simply a matter of good vs evil. As if the Olympics has neatly patched over the problems that inevitably lead to social unrest; of which there are many. It seems as if the Olympics is being used as a tool to deflect attention away from what will always result in violence. The economic destruction of the country by the current government and a complete lack of opportunity is a wound that cannot be dressed so weakly by a sporting event.
According to the DWP, the poverty rate in London is 6% higher than the average for the rest of England, at 28%. And it’s rising. 220,000 people live in overcrowded accommodation; 60,000 more than 10 years ago. Housing benefit changes mean people are struggling to stay in their homes. And whilst the outer boroughs are cheaper, they have even bigger funding problems; 35% of primary schools in the outer boroughs are overcrowded; 8 of the 10 primary care trusts with the fewest GPs per population are in Outer London, the unemployment rate in the poorest areas are at their highest levels in decades, and The poorest 50% have less than 5% of financial or property wealth whilst the richest 10% have 40% of income wealth, 45% of property wealth and 65% of financial wealth. – According to London’s Poverty Profile. And here is the most telling fact on poverty and inequality in the Capital: Babies born in Southwark, Croydon, Haringey and Harrow are twice as likely to die before their 1st birthday than those born in Bromley, Kingston and Richmond.
So how is the government dealing with this? Well, whilst the riots were taking place, the Mayor was on holiday in the US. The Chancellor was on holiday. The Deputy Prime Minister was on holiday. The Prime Minister was in Tuscany having tennis lessons in his rented villa. And what we have now, is a situation where the government have insisted that it is for our own good, that the poorest areas lose housing benefit, Sure Start, youth clubs, libraries, and all hope that maybe the education system might provide opportunity (the end of EMA for example). All of this during an atmosphere of rising inflation, rising unemployment, a broken NHS, and the biggest double dip recession in 50 years. Any lasting hope has been cruelly ripped out of the communities that are the most economically vulnerable, and replaced by fear of losing everything, and we act surprised when this results in social violence? The riots may have appeared on the surface to be a bunch of opportunistic thugs. But the underlying issue, the social deprivation, high unemployment, high VAT rates, the end of EMA, rising inflation, the mass of cuts to youth services, and the unfair and shock economic violence by a government that has grown up enjoying the benefits of a strong public service, only to loot it when they came to power, thus burning the ladder up which they themselves climbed, is an obvious precursor to social violence from communities that feel ever more excluded.
It is no wonder that riots appeared in London as government cuts began to hit. Islington, Hackney, Westminster and Camden all hit the top ten list of worst areas for child poverty in the entire country. And top of the list? Tower Hamlets. With this damning conclusion to the report by The Campaign to End Child Poverty:
‘The poverty line means that, after housing costs, all the household bills and family’s spending needs will need to be met by around £12 or less per family member per day.
‘For many families, especially those reliant on out of work benefits, it can be substantially less.’
I’m pretty sure schools in Tower Hamlets don’t offer Archery as a subject.
What has the Mayor, or the Government done to change the fact that over 53% of children in the borough of Tower Hamlets live below the poverty line? It is the worst area in the UK for child poverty, and one of the rioting boroughs…… The Government have scrapped community-based youth projects. Despite almost 3000 signatures demanding the service not be touched, by residents. Local community-based services were there to help the youth in those particular areas. They knew they area. The staff often lived in the area and had struggled themselves. And the government scrap it. Youth services; gone. Educational Maintenance Allowance to help young people stay at school; gone. Tuition Fees; tripled. Employment; non-existent. The UK now has the biggest gap between rich and poor than three quarters of the OECD nations. Reuters interviewed a man during the riots, who said:
“There’s two worlds in this borough. More and more upper middle classes are coming and we’re being pushed out. The shops are pricing stuff like it’s the West End, we can’t afford the rents. We’re the outcasts, we’re not wanted any more.
“There’s nothing for us.”
– This is the economic backdrop that leads to social unrest. Jumping in front of the problem holding an Olympic banner is not the answer. Nor is it a way to deal with the problem.
“London needed this”.
Yeah, there’s nothing more that those whose youth clubs have been closed, schools underfunded for decades, welfare all but scrapped and jobs with regressing wages, struggling to pay for their homes love more than a government who spent the entire riots last year, in private Tuscan villas telling them that the wealthy man who had his own stables growing up, should be held up as their aspirational hero. “We know you can’t afford to live….. but at least we won the Dressage!”
We see the the crowds, and the British flags, our Royals, and the wonderful music that this country has produced, and the athletes, and the spectacle at we can put on, and we rightfully feel privileged to be a part of such a great country. The Olympics has its place in the history of London. We should be proud of our athletes. They have done us proud in the sports arena. But it isn’t a bandage for the massive problems we currently face. The deep underlying social and economic issues that lead to unrest can only be sorted via real investment, and a strong support system in the most affected areas. The Olympics cannot do that. It is sport. It does not even begin to deal with the problems caused by an ideology that benefit those who can afford to live in a World where dressage appears frequently in every day vocabulary, and so destroyed the World of those who now insist “there’s nothing for us here“.