Thoughts on the politics of the riots

Riots are not common in mainland GB. Every time one occurs there is handwringing by the media who seem torn between denouncing it all as “mindless violence” and trying to understand why it has happened. The same occurs in Northern Ireland of course though previously during the Troubles there seemed more emphasis on understanding and nowadays there is more emphasis on condemning.

Politicians are similar to the media in their reactions with the exception that any politician who attempts to analyse the issue must start by condemnation lest they are accused by the opponents of excusing the rioters: even when they do this they are still excused of the latter; though the more shrill that accusation frequently the more uncomfortable the accuser has become.

Currently Labour’s narrative on the riots seems more convincing and more in touch with the public mood than either coalition partners’ attempt. Boris Johnston was booed in Central London and Nick Clegg had to be advised by his police protection officers to leave Birmingham when local people heckled him: the hecklers in question were not supporting the rioting but complaining about the inadequate response to it. In contrast Ed Milliband was well received on his walkabouts.

The Prime Minister is now talking about fighting back and there is little doubt that the UK is not going to descend into anarchy. However, the political problems which this episode is presenting for the coalition show up a major problem at the heart of the government philosophy.

The government is obsessed with tackling the deficit and one can debate the economic benefits of their policies ad infinitium. However, at its core the current government is proposing an economically conservative and socially liberal political agenda and it is highly debateable whether the UK is sufficiently socially liberal or economically conservative to support the coalition’s policies. The laisse-faire approach seems to be identified with an increasing gap between the small number of the extremely wealthy and the rest; it will also almost certainly worsen still further the position of the most marginalised in society. In addition social mobility has been decreasing in the UK for years and the current government seems likely to accelerate this tendency (apart from for a tiny fraction of the extremely talented and extraordinarily lucky).

Over the last thirty years most of the middle and upper working class have tolerated and even supported the increasing gap between the richest and the rest and also the decrease in social mobility. This is because they personally have become much wealthier over the past thirty years and also because they could at least hope to aspire to becoming even wealthier.

Now, however, there are a series of problems: the prospect of real terms decreases in personal wealth at least for the medium term; the reduction in social mobility, nowhere better illustrated than in the vast rise in university tuition fees. Added to this is the perception of the overwhelming poshness of the current government (with William Hague being almost the sole high profile exception) drawn as it is from the same social mould as those of the Edwardian era. With all these issues the majority of people may feel that the current contract under the current government is not to their liking.

Whilst middle or even below middle Britain is overwhelmingly unlikely to man the barricades or overthrow the government; the offerings of the Labour Party, even if it were to move to the left, may become more enticing. The new ideas of Blue Labour have an increasing resonance. It is no accident that Harriet Harmon who represents a largely working class constituency has been prominent in the recent events. The Labour deputy leader comprehensively demolished the Tories’ Michael Gove on Newsnight last night.

The idea of a no nonsense, socially conservative, relatively authoritarian policing response to the riots is popular with local people in the areas affected and also in the country at large. Adding to that criticism of the coalition’s strategy of cutting the police and pointing up the perceived (and probably real differences) between the government and the police over the current crisis is a recipe to defend Labour against any accusations of going soft on the rioters.

Then Blue Labour suggests that the neoliberal economic model the UK has followed for most of the last thirty years has major problems and has left a sub working class with little hope, few expectations and little stake in society. To point out that this demographic has less incentive to take part in society is not justifying criminality from that quarter. Indeed since the major victims of crimes committed by the small minority of the poorest sections of society are other poor people; such comments avoid accusing the poor of being “undeserving” or predisposed to criminality.

Added to this is the fear of the rest of the working and the lower middle class that far from being able to aspire to upwards social mobility, their lot is at best to remain static and most likely for their living standards to fall. Blue Labour can tap into all these strands of public thinking and attempt to reform Blair’s winning coalition of the working and much of the middle class. Whilst it may not be as aspirational or as socially liberal as Blair’s New Labour: Blue Labour could become a powerful force offering a grim determination to fight criminality; get people back to work and improve the lot of the vast majority of the population, worrying less about the needs of the super rich or the pet causes of the politically correct.

In many ways some of this is a harking back to the folk memories of the UK immediately after the Second World War when everyone worked hard, society was moving forward and there was respect and the possibility of self advancement for all. In a recession people often look back to imagined golden times of the past. This sort of politics failed badly for Major with his warm beer and cricket proposals. However, if Labour can offer such a vision but with an up to the minute twist of progress and hard headed modernity they may be able to reap significant political benefit. Unfortunately for Labour it is still more than three years until the next general election and the economy may well improve, the riots be forgotten and the celebrity culture and worship of excessive wealth and consumerism may well reassert itself.

However, the fall from grace of the Murdock empire may knock some of the celebrity obsession of the public, mainly by reducing the number of such stories easily obtainable by a chastened tabloid press. Furthermore the economic recovery looks extremely shaky and a double dip recession is a realistic possibility. Finally in economic good times people seem not to mind being ruled by their social betters but in economically straightened times the claim that “We are all in this together” can look extremely crass and the coalitions claims that there can be no plan B may sound like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”.

Britain has not done revolutions for three hundred years and is hardly likely to start. However, sometimes one can see when a definite change is occurring: one occurred to bring Clement Attlee to power in the aftermath of the Second World War; another to bring Margaret Thatcher to power. If the times they are a changing then with retrospect one might suggest that now was a beginning. Then again it may all just be some summer criminality with no long term political relevance at all.

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  • circles

    Also a nice short analysis of what lies behind riots can be read here:

  • michael-mcivor

    Its ok for people to boo politicians- but the actual riots in England are more against shops than the police-

  • Hi Turgon and Sluggers,

    This is the elephant in the room, which all those dozy waste-of-space politicians and civil servants are studiously ignoring [watch the video]…… …. and which is always going to be tearing them apart until they acknowledge and do something drastic and revolutionary about it, and they had better be darned quick about it too, before the mob is instructed and educated and enlightened and turns their rabid attention upon the system administrators/the elephant in the room and its trainers and maintainers and retainers.

    Ignoring it further guarantees continuing rapid collapse and the certain targeted demise of the controllers of the present system, and not necessarily of the system itself per se. …….. and that would surely have any intelligence in any intelligent service servering systems of SCADA and Command and Control making sure that controls and policies and media puppets were immediately changed to prevent a top down meltdown and catastrophic purge of failed leaderships?

    The mob is a lot smarter than anyone thinks and it thinks you should be aware of its increased awareness and greater consciousness?

  • PS ….. I wonder if that message, [posted 10 August 2011 at 3:58 pm] which is a universal blight and pox visited upon every country by an easily corrupted corruptible control system, was spelled out to Sammy in Stormont the other day whenever they had that impromptu, ad hoc brainstorming session, …. or was it not mentioned at all and therefore is nothing at all being done by the big house on the hill to correct it?

  • I could be wrong, am wrong often, but sometimes I get it right, sometimes bang on the button.

    I think it was monday morning there was statistics on BBC radio 4 that the average workers pension now is £6000. The average company director pension however now is £139,000. What type and quality of future do any of those rioting have? The UK economy is still in recession, and when these riots started where was the Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister. Abroad. Instead of spending their money and giving leadership to the masses to bolster our economy, the prime minister was helping the Italian tourist economy. How many of those rioting will have Italian holidays this year?

    I am not trying to justify the unjustifiable riots, just trying to understand the reasons why.

  • dwatch

    Patrick keilty, told the press he couldn’t wait to get home to Belfast for a break away from all these riots in England

  • Having for several days been in the company of (and occasionally the charge of) pre-teen grandsons, I was dozing until wakened by a telephone call. Result: still barely awake I had to read through Turgon‘s typically thoughtful piece twice.

    Even then, one disconnect remained: (pace Dr Joad) it all depends on what one means by a “riot”.

    Once upon a time (between 1715 and 1973, I think) it required the formal reading of the Riot Act. Now that was a real, unadorned riot. We knew where we were with one of those (it involved transportation). The last one was in Birkenhead, 1919, when the police of Merseyside were on strike.

    The Pert Young Piece around Redfellow Hovel was only too keen, over the dinner table on Monday, to display her legal studies. It now seems a “riot” can still involve as few as twelve people “unlwfully assembled” (that, I think, was the legacy of the 1715 Act), can happen in private as well as public, but no longer needs to be pre-defined by the reading of a text or even to be witnessed by a reponsible soul. When section one of the Public Order Act 1986 was rendered in such exquisite length and depth, I found the opening of the second bottle of Australian Cab a necessary concomitant (grandsons being minded by Wii, responsibility absolved on the sober Lady in My Life).

    So, to my mind, it’s only the forbearance of the authorities that most sporting fixtures (e.g. rugby clubs on tour) don’t qualify. Or chucking out time at the Dog & Duck. Or end-of-term at your local bog-standard comprehensive.

    However, I suspect that the legal resort will be crimes against property rather than serious breaching of the peace.

    So, today, I noticed that magistrates’ courts were referring those accused of burglary to the Crown Courts. This is an interesting upgrading. The “Maj” (Pert Young Piece’s term) can only jug burglars for six months. The Crown Courts will therefore be dealing with charges of “aggravated burglary” — and the sentence can now be up to ten years — or, with a bit of finesse in defining the offence — even more. The sentencing guidelines are on line.

    I see that such penalties are considerably in excess of those for “Arson – reckless as to whether life endangered”.

  • Spare a thought for Northern Ireland’s legal profession as lawyers continue with their strike, hoping that very soon, the Justice system will show cracks and defendants will have their cases dismissed.

    Wouldn’t they love to have all that trouble from London and elsewhere arrive on their doorstep? They would see it as just the right tonic to drive David Ford into submission.

  • Brian

    Those riots in the UK are showing us once again just how thin the veneer of civilization really is. I’m getting really sick of reading well meaning people romanticize the violence, looting, and general criminality taking place (like “pennyred”). These people are thugs, not revolutionaries. While the youths in Syria are fighting and protesting for freedom, these rioters are out for Plasma TV’s, Sony PlayStations, the latest Nike trainers and so on.

    There are real societal grievances and injustices, yes. But these people arent’ attacking banks, financial instutions, politically symbolic targets, the police, even the rich (by and large)! They are destroying their own neighborhoods while laughing with glee at the propsect of new gear and craic.

    They realized with planning and cellphones the cops are at a loss to stop them.

  • Dewi

    “The same occurs in Northern Ireland of course though previously during the Troubles there seemed more emphasis on understanding and nowadays there is more emphasis on condemning”

    Strange statement Turgon – the understanding emphasis seened to cause a fair few deaths and internents IIRC.

  • nightrider

    “The Labour deputy leader comprehensively demolished the Tories’ Michael Gove on Newsnight last night. ”

    I watched that exchange and came away with the opposite view. Gove said the looters were criminals. Harman thought they needed to be listened to and tried to score petty political points about education reform. But I really don’t like Harman.

  • Turgon

    The comment was about the media attitude as mentioned in the preceding sentence.

    Interesting. I guess I do not like Gove and have tended to like Harman. I felt she agreed with the fact that the criminality was unacceptable and needed stopped but went on to make sensible comments about the loss of police numbers and societal breakdown. Interesting how differently people see the same thing.

    I am sure I am very biased though since the idea of Blue Labour fits in well with my personal political views: sort of tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, moderately left of centre economics and forget political correctness. Kind of Tony Blair but not Cool Britannia; call me Mr. Blair and yes if you are rich you get taxed a bit more: oh yes and ideally let’s manufacture something.

  • rhys

    Fundamentally, we can forget about the Labour party, which no longer speaks for anyone except a gang of careerist politicians. The tories have declared class- and generation-war on the young people of the cities and treated them like rubbish, while destroying any belief in anything except consumer goods, so it is hardly surprising they learn from the bankers and the MPs to get what they can as situations dictate. In doing so they have called the bluff of the etonian flabs, who are now trying to work up a near-equivalent of fascist racism (‘feral children of teenagers’ and so on, who should – in the wilder reaches – be ‘shot at sight’ like the poor chap who set this all off by travelling in a mini-cab while black). It shows the complete collapse of the social contract under flabby shites who believe they live in the USA and can piss on the People.

  • Brian

    ‘The tories have declared class- and generation-war on the young people of the cities and treated them like rubbish, while destroying any belief in anything except consumer goods’

    They have managed to destroy the young people’s strongly held beliefs in just over a year? Wow, very impressive. (belief in what, exactly? certainly not community, education, decency, or respect for others)

    Give me a break. Plenty of people who live in the same neighborhoods didn’t go out robbing, stealing, destroying, and burning just to show they could.

  • cailleachdearg

    It’s not enough to blithely condemn violence and looting as spontaneous thuggery or ‘ontic’ violence with no social context, everything has context; we understand nothing of the riots if we ignore the history out of which they emerge. If, like the political classes and mainstream media you refuse to countenance poverty, unemployment and austerity measures as causal factors then let us for a moment agree that the rioters are aggressive, prone-to-violence, narcissistic, apathetic hoodies with an exclusive concern for their own immediate gratification. The next question then is how did society manage to create such a generation? Are we are witnessing the first generation of apolitical yet sophisticated consumer-driven looters who are rioting not out of a collective anger but out of a rampant individualism and greed?
    Alongside the ugly and rapacious face of modern capitalism that characterizes popular television in the Dragon’s den, The Apprentice, and get rich quick property shows, next to the largely passive acceptance of the theft our commonwealth through mass privatization, the rioters are perhaps the true children of Thatcher, they are our Lumpenproletariat …the peasants are indeed revolting…
    Stiofán Ó Nualláín

  • nightrider

    fair enough Turgon. I don’t like Gove either, but at least he was forthright. Harman epitomised New Labour, as Gove said, speaking out of both sides of her mouth.
    Anyway, how pathetic were Miliband and Clegg? on a scale of 1 – 10 about 9. At least Cameron knows which side of the fence he’s on.

    Though the last commentor is correct in reference to the media.. (cailleachdearg )

  • JoeBryce

    A thoughtful piece with a lot of truth in it.

  • dwatch

    “Give me a break. Plenty of people who live in the same neighborhoods didn’t go out robbing, stealing, destroying, and burning just to show they could.”

    Indeed, just like citizens who live through the Belfast riots recently. The only difference was citizens in London came out after the riots to help clean up the mess. In Belfast they left it to the City Council to clean up instead.

  • Comrade Stalin

    On Newsnight, I saw Harriet Harman keeping her cool and making her point (petty politicking as it was) where Gove visibly lost it. I almost thought he was at the point of storming out of the interview. He fought to hold himself back from accusing the interviewer of bias.

    It reminded me of that Peter Robinson interview. He may have had the upper hand with the facts, but if he’d presented the case calmly and carefully he’d have won the day.

  • Johnny Boy

    Modern society has made life a race for money and possessions, those who begin the race most disadvantaged due to an accident of their birth are always going to have a tendency to be resentful and opt out of the system. To me the problem in these communities seems to be inbuilt in how society functions.

    As to a solution, I have no idea, but I do know happiness is free.

  • streetlegal

    One of the themes that I keep hearing politicians and commentators harping on about is the lack of respect amongst the rioters for authority. Indeed that this lack of respect constitutes a sickness. By authority of course they mean the Establishment. The question which then naturally arises is why should the poor automatically give their respect to the authority of that Establishment, as it is represented by the politicians, the Metropolitan Police and the press?

  • rhys

    Brian – Perhaps you are to young to know, but the tories (in various forms) have been in power since Callaghan’s time.

  • andnowwhat

    I liked the take this Russia Today report takes..

  • PaddyReilly

    The current events provide, for me at least, a useful opportunity to expatiate on the doctrine of karma.

    The law of karmic cause and effect holds that whatever bad actions you commit, they will eventually make their way back to you due to the disruption in the fabric of morality which you have created. As members of the dharmic religions (Hindu and Buddhist) believe in reincarnation, then the karma of past lives may be working in the present. But sometimes, your karma can get to you in this life.

    I draw your attention to the case of William (Liam) Gallagher, singer with the group “Oasis”. During the early 90s the as yet unknown Liam G was responsible for a string of burglaries:-

    This should be compared with the following news-item:-

    Karl Brown, 27, of no fixed abode, was allegedly found with cannabis and a bag containing liquor, cigars, tobacco, sweets and a £40 T-shirt from Pretty Green, the clothes shop owned by former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher. The shop was extensively looted and lost £200,000 of stock, the court heard.

    In colloquial speech, what goes around, comes around.

  • nightrider

    Michael Gove may have lost his cool a bit, while winning the argument. For really being a prat, David Starkey took the biscuit on Newsnight tonight.
    Cringeworthy stuff, and a reputation in tatters.