Robert Leitch is a party activist who is working in Parliament for a Conservative MP.
Last week’s riots across England have kick-started a wide-ranging and almost limitless debate about the state of our country’s morality, social interactions and general well-being. This debate looks likely to continue for some time as politicians in particular attempt to secure an ideological understanding of the destructive episode.
Broken families, a weak criminal justice system and poor standards of discipline in our school have, amongst other factors, been used as the basis of many arguments. In truth, it is likely that all such factors have played a role in the obvious disfranchisement of a growing minority of predominately young people.
In my view, however, an underlying issue cannot be ignored in this period of self-reflection. The concept of aspiration has simply become distorted for many young people. Likewise, the definition of "success" in life has changed between former generations and the young of today.
In part, our modern-day celebrity culture may offer some explanation. Back in 2008, I worked in a secondary school in South-East London. During my conversations with young students, I was frequently surprised at the low level of aspiration that many possessed. For most, their dreams were limited to becoming a footballer, a pop star, or some form of TV personality. Any suggestion of a career outside of these narrow parameters was often met with utter despondency.
Wanting to be a footballer, TV personality or chart topping singer is, of course, absolutely fine – for many years, I dreamt only of lifting the FA Cup with my beloved West Ham United! Such lofty dreams prove that aspiration (be it increasingly narrow) still exists. Thus, I do not condemn celebrity culture as some do. In many respects reality TV shows, for example, offer all and any the opportunity to have their dreams realised. The problem for many young people is that their dreams seem limited to the riches and fame that the celebrity world alone can provide.
For a number of young people, therefore, the self-inflicted pressure to reach such heights and succeed so early in life is bound to lead to disillusionment, frustration and a lack of hope. No such feelings excuse rioting or indeed opportunist thieving, and strong punishments must follow these acts of criminality. Appreciating that many of our young people have such low and narrow aspiration, however, does give us an insight into the rather bleak and depressing mind frame from which many operate.
Sadly, there exists no quick fix. Nevertheless, from parenting to Government policies to the teaching in our schools, we must urgently address the concept of what defines success in life. Young people must be encouraged to dream big dreams, but also to dream many. In particular, those from broken homes and pockets of deprivation need to see aspiration in action. The principle that anyone from any background can achieve anything they desire through endeavour and a strong work ethic must be reasserted, predominantly through our education system.
Too many young people are allowed to drift along as their youthful dreams fade away. Too few have a plan B and as a result they lack the wider skills and qualifications necessary. With no get up and go, no goals to aim for and no motivation to achieve in life, a dangerous mentality takes hold – one which festers anger, an irrational sense of entitlement and a simple lack of caring about wider society.
For the growing minority of young people who feel so alienated from general society, we must now win a battle of hearts and minds. Tempting though it is to simply dismiss anti-social, thuggish youths, to do so will only increase the alienation currently felt as an injustice by many. Rather, we must reassert the exciting and largely Conservative principle of aspiration to those young people who appear simply lost and hopeless at present.