Rosamund McCarthy: We all have responsibility for the recent riots

It's easy to blame others, says our columnist, but we need to ask ourselves about the part we might play in widening social divisions

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

I spent a great week over the summer volunteering with 15 to 18-year-old Quakers, exploring the theme of "Let Your Life Speak". As well as having a lot of fun, the young people considered how to make the world a better place and "to answer a demanding love of each other and our planet".

In a thought-provoking session, a young peace activist encouraged us to think about the seeds of war in our own lives. This has made me think more about the causes of the riots. It is easy to blame others - bankers, politicians and the unceasing consumerism peddled by the large corporations. But one has to ask this question: have I contributed to the riots in any way? If there are widening social divisions, then what responsibility do I bear?

One of my personal obsessions is education. I do not have children, so my principles have never been tested. But I have seen so many people in London who wax indignant about social divisions doing everything they can, short of selling their grandmothers, to make sure their children don't have to go to school with kids from estates. Research on the 'peer group' effect shows that schools abandoned by the middle classes are more likely to fail. Yet when it comes to our own children, 'white flight' is the norm. Even left-wing journalists from The Guardian avoid the state system like the plague.

I suppose my perspective would be different if I did have children. But we should not blame bankers and the toxicity of consumerism without recognising our own responsibility for the creation of ghetto schools.

Housing is also a big issue. Regeneration research shows that a 'pepperpot' strategy of dotting private houses into social housing has the best effect on integration. It rarely happens, of course, because middle class people like me do not want to live slap bang in the middle of an estate. But the more our lives are hermetically sealed from each other, the more we store up problems.

The National Citzen Service, the government's flagship programme, is an ideal opportunity to bring together teenagers from different backgrounds. But if the more privileged schools - state or independent - do not take part, a golden opportunity for social mixing and mutual understanding is lost.

Most of the time, I live in a bubble with people like me. I love volunteering with idealistic young people who want to change the world. It is wonderful to be part of a community with meaning, love and purpose at its heart. But if I am going to really let my life speak, then I need to step out of my comfort zone. How I am going to do this, I don't yet know. But until I do, I have to accept that I am living a life of separation from the most vulnerable and disaffected. This separation or abandonment creates mistrust and feeds into conflict. The truth of the matter is that the seeds of the riots are inside many of us.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity, and is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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