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Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

A Hot English Summer

Before I came to Maastricht, some 25 years ago now, I lived in Brighton, England for about 10 years. It was 1975 when I left for England with my wife and it was, I must admit, a big shock. We were both taken aback by the widespread poverty, inefficiency of public services and poor facilities – I remember how we arrived speechless watching the electricity meter in our flat and how it had to be refilled hourly with a 50 pence piece – and the huge class distinction between rich and poor. A striking distinction both in the real world and in the TV world with the popular everyday adventures of Eastenders.

But in return was an extraordinary friendliness, an openness and interest in who you were, what you did, where you came from. England was really a country where you wanted to integrate, wanted to use your talents to address all those inefficiencies, where you were invited to speak up and jump on the bandwagon of social mobility.

Our neighbour was a true Brit, our doctor was originally from Pakistan, my younger and closest colleague at work a British Indian from Kenya and my boss an exiled South African. These were years of discovery: every week you learned about new foods, drinks and other customs. It was also the first time I went to a mosque. To me the evidence, then and now, is that multiculturalism and integration go well together. Multiculturalism was in the truest sense of the word Britain's ‘common wealth’.  

Twenty-five years later at the sight of marauding youths in the streets of London, Manchester and Birmingham this common wealth seems in danger. Not by a failure of multi-cultural integration. On the contrary, if there is anything that characterizes the ‘chavs’ (in the words of the British press) it is their multi-cultural nature. The true pressure on Britain’s common wealth comes from the failure of economic integration, the failure to narrow the gap between rich and poor.

A soaring number of young people, perhaps a million, are socially adrift. A growing urban underclass of young people sees no chance of social or material mobility, is often barely educated having dropped out of school early, is unemployed with no prospect of any work, and concentrated in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the major English cities.

This is what so confuses the British media and politicians. In Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and Israel young people protest against political corruption, lack of freedom, economic opportunity; but in Britain a political motivation is much harder to identify. As one British commentator put it, the mob had simply discovered the ‘power to steal’. And even the choice of what was stolen was rather sobering for many British commentators. No basic needs such as bread or milk, but cheap shoes from Perry's! In short, it seemed to be a consumer-driven looting from shopping centre to shopping centre, powered by youth gangs connected via social media, always one step ahead of the plodding police.

Could this kind of behaviour spread to the Netherlands by next summer? Well, what’s to stop it? The Netherlands has far fewer unemployed people and social benefits are still much higher than in Britain. We have no real large cities in the Netherlands as a breeding ground for the emergence of a large urban underclass of young people.

But what we do see in the Netherlands is a growing frustration among young people about the status quo. Social mobility is also increasingly becoming an exception, which only occurs on TV. It is expensive to be poor, also in the Netherlands, but fortunately we have no Olympics next year! Who was it who said his main task was just to ‘keep it together’? Perhaps Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, should ask some advice from Job Cohen, his ex-colleague of Amsterdam. Otherwise 2012 could well become an even hotter summer for Britain.

Luc Soete

August 13, 2011


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