Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A tale of two cities

Not long has the dust settled on a third night of violence, with a deep worry for another one, that people begin the search for a cause behind the unprecedented and completely unpredictable riots which have engulfed London and other English cities. Early choruses of 'pure criminality' are being replaced by increasingly political and social explanations. Debates and arguments will surely rage for months.

While many on the political right have begun to lay the blame at the gates of the welfare state, I would like to put forward an alternative explanation, of chronically high levels of social inequality. In particular, inequality - of opportunity, income, status and so on - blights London. According to this article by the New Economics Foundation, London is one of the most unequal cities in the Western world.

The figures come from a book by Professor Danny Dorling, a geographer from Sheffield University. In relation to them, Dorling argues that London is so unequal it 'resembles an Indian caste system, where people only mix with those from their own income brackets'.

For those who have ever lived in London, such imagery should be familiar; it is a city where affluence and prosperity sit side-by-side with enormous poverty. So much so, that Londoners have become accustomed to living separate lives from others with whom they share the same living space. It has, de facto, become two separate cities who barely interact. This week, those two cities have clashed. It will haunt London for years to come.

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