Media and politicians have been trying too hard to find an explanation for the riots and looting that rocked the UK this week. Inevitably, they have failed, simply because there is no single explanation any more than there was any one type of participant in the urban mayhem.
The media buzz about middle-class students arrested stealing smartphones or bottles of water tells the story about what I suggest were the four quite different groups of people involved:
1. Disenchanted young. Most of these will be on benefits and from the four East London boroughs which (despite London’s world-class affluence) have unemployment well above the UK national average. Tottenham’s Harringay (just a few miles from Canary Wharf’s glittering banks) comes top of this league with 11% unemployment. Many are members of gangs who were united, perhaps, in a fight against police after the killing which sparked the riots. Many are young black people who know all about ‘stop-and-search’ and may ascribe a racial motive to their aimless predicament.
2. Vociferous middle-aged poor. Most of these will resent the lawless, ‘disenchanted young people’ in their midst as much as they do the politicians who, they perceive, have impoverished and betrayed them – whether unemployed or not. Their angry, race-conscious sights are trained not so much on (seemingly) heavily-unemployed blacks but on (seemingly) fully-employed Eastern European whites.
3. Middle-class careerists. These are the people who just may have turned out for their local riots in the same spirit as their parents who (back in 1968) found themselves embroiled in a violent Grosvenor Square demo against the Vietnam War. They were surprised to discover that their Yuppie-haven Clapham Junction was scene of a riot rather than a televised protest. But, then, the police have admitted that they too were surprised.
4. Excited observers. These are the students and other young professionals (many of them girls) who almost dressed up to savour the excitement of riots occurring just a walk or bus ride from their homes. Shocking television footage showed them watching excitedly as stores were attacked. If the outcomes had been different, perhaps they would have texted home: “Daddy, I’ve been to a riot”. Some would, anyway, have texted that the Battersea riots, which wrecked almost every shop, miraculously spared the shiny one belonging to the people’s cook Jamie Oliver. And a health food store.
There were, of course, plenty of other people, quite literally, stoking the fires. I am sure it is true also that there were some gangs driving across London to steal plasma screens, trainers, and phones. But my broad analysis helps explain the ‘perfect storm’ created by the involvement of all these quite different people and places.
The only things uniting this unimaginable ‘coalition’ are mobile telephony and social networking. In the pre-internet 1960s and 1970s, when Time Out magazine listed upcoming London marches and demos, the protests took weeks to organise. Today, with Blackberry, Facebook, and Twitter, it’s only minutes.
For all that, August in Britain might have been different. True, the (latest) episode of Tottenham riots can now be seen to have been a distinct possibility after the police shooting of Mark Duggan. The suburb’s history and social economy are recognisable tinder.
Elsewhere, though, there was no such inevitability. It is acknowledged that the police were outpaced by events principally because they were deployed to face (or not) what they believed would be demonstrations and protests rather than criminal violence and looting. Therefore, you have to concede that many of the people caught up in the rioting would have remained mere observers (or stayed at home) if the police had been there to hold the line and keep the peace. While the violence might, then, have been directed at the police rather than at shops and homes, any consequent disorder would have involved many fewer people in fewer places and been brought under control much more quickly.
That is an important point because of what happens next. In their search for an explanation and the “right” words of condemnation, politicians have (typically) been falling over themselves to share the description of “criminality”. You suspect that, if the disorder had been confined to the depressed suburb ofTottenham, there would have been more blended references (and not just from the political left) to social injustice, poverty and disenchantment. Once the riots exploded all over London and England, the single explanation took over.
Inevitably, therefore, some young people – wide-eyed in a war zone of wrecked shops – now find themselves imprisoned for stealing bottles of water. The penalties will not reflect their actual crimes so much as the fact of their involvement in an unprecedented catalogue of disorder which shocked a nation. Over-full jails are now being crammed with people who have ruined their promising lives by momentarily losing their heads – as well as those more familiar with life at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
There is not much room for sympathy, though. At least five people have died in the disturbances this week; and dozens of families have lost their homes, businesses and jobs. Lives have been wrecked. And the horror stories will not abate for some time yet. It has been a hugely expensive week in every sense.
But politicians must resist the temptation to behave, well, as politicians and knee-jerk to the week’s national shame.
The Economist hits the nail on the head by saying that the riots “have tarnished Britain’s image around the world. But, most of all, they have been desperately disorienting for the country’s own sense of itself.”
Britain enjoys an enviable reputation as a peaceful, civilised, tolerant country. That is why these events have shocked international observers as much as they have shamed Brits. This ultra-embarrassment must not be allowed to obscure the social problems that need to be addressed. Once the court cases are out of the way, politicians have to focus on the background to at least some of the rioting – and some of the people involved.
Otherwise, they will be denying a basic, depressing truth: that the UK has an urban ‘under-class’ of embittered young and not-so-young, poorly-educated people, permanently living on benefits with little prospect of employment, and no real stake in society. For many of them, violent, drug-dealing gangs may be their only experience of excitement, structure and a sense of belonging.
Nobody should want any more political sound-bites on these issues. The UK needs to work steadily at: eradicating “sink” schools; rebuilding industrial training and apprenticeships; and overhauling welfare benefits and incentives to work. Such moves can really start to change things. But the problems demand long-term commitment, persistence – and apolitical zeal. Only then, can Brits have confidence that their Summer horror story was truly a one-off.