Those English riots and the ideological conclusions that followed…

Hands up, I’ve no idea what caused the English riots of a few weeks ago. Partly because I was in North Wales, intentionally as far from t’Internet as I could bearably go. But also, there was nothing evidently causal you could point to, as you could in the early eighties, when union versus government ideology was to the fore.

I hesitate to make the comparison, or to give any false impression that I know more than I do about any of the individual cases concerned, but it strikes me there is a limited parallel with the Arab Spring uprisings. There was no ideological cause for the riots because, in the digital age, peoples’ collective capacity to think and act outpaces the capacity of organisations, including that of insurgent political agencies, to anticipate and respond to an entirely new scale of disruption.

Much of the reaction to the riots have been hysterical and driven by ideological predilections. But as Bagehot notes (who, I think was also absent to the events themselves), Britain has been here before.

One of Northern Ireland’s most acute observers, Brian Feeney noted from across the Irish Sea that muc of the early reactions are knee jerk:

…several of the proposals require legislation which would change the law and affect the whole of the UK thereby lay open the majority of people to dire consequences as a result of criminal actions of a tiny minority of a population of 60 million. It’s populist rhetoric. It’s for the optics.

The real threat is long term. The sort of internal inquiry into government policies and agencies Cameron announced on Monday is his opportunity to bring in legislation to change fundamentally the role of the state in soceity.

Violence often has unintended consequences.

Quite so. Though Mr C is displaying some worryingly Bertie-ist qualities… It is not clear to me that there is any clear plan for the longer term…


  • carnmoney.guy

    Interesting how the independent courts are sheepishly following that knee jerk reaction.

    Daryl O’Donnell, the guy who threatened Gregory Campbell after his Saville report comments should thank his lucky stars that his case was heard this month instead of last, and in Londonderry instead of London..sic
    If using Facebook, you get 4 years for incitement to riot, imagine what the English judiciary would have thought of incitement to injure one of their honourable members.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, In some ways I think it is down to the old pressure cooker idea, and no real reason is needed, society just needs to let of steam now and again, it can be controlled and reduced, or even channeled it good directions, or in bad, rural Tryrone might not be the best place to judge but I don’t thing it is the challenge to society the press make it out to be, and possibly it could even result in soem good if those communities make the rebuild posative.

  • I certainly agree on the point made by Carnmoney Guy in relation to Darryl O’Donnell and the timing of his case.

    But basically I am at a loss as is Mick Fealty.
    But the inclination is still to add my two cents. and I am no exception.From David Cameron to David Starkey the answer is “I dont know but heres what I think anyway……..”

    The trigger if not the cause was the death of the guy in Tottenham.
    But the rest seems as much opportunistic crime as ideology. We all have a moral compas and for some that moral compass needs backed up by the availability of police and the fear of consequences.
    Unpoliced areas of “illegal” behaviour …..such as “doing the double” or “tax evasion” make levels of crime high.

    Take the policeman out of the street and make it unlikely that many will be caught….the 1,800 in London is a tip of the iceberg…and there is no “legal” inhibition.
    The confrontation seems to have been between Good People and Bad People.
    The basic question is ….would we take a track suit from a shop with a broken window……if we “knew” we could get away with it. The answer for most decent people of all creeds, races, classes is of course not.
    But is it so very different from saying that we will take £80 cash for a job or £100 if it goes thru the books.?
    We might claim that its different but actually it is exactly the same.
    We all have thresholds….some are high…..some not so high.

    T’internet as always gets the blame but it seems to me T’internet always gets too much credit and too much blame. But its certainly a factor in the speed of organisation……and is a crime headache in Philadelphia organising crime rampages and/or organising protest on the San Francisco Metro.
    There seems a certain loss of perspective. Next time my grandson breaks the satellite dish I dare not tweet that I will kill him. Thats different you might say…..but hardly that different to sentences handed down.
    Over-reaction in the Courts? It seems so.
    A custodial sentence for some bottles of water (no previous record) seems a bit harsh when MPs got away with several bottles of water………which they handed back. They also thought there was no real policing.

    There is an element of Race. There always is. There is an element of People with a Stake in Community and the “Underclass” who have no stake in….or opt out of Community. A parallel with Norn Iron…..well we did see some highly unusual and downright embarrassing petrol bombing techniques in Derry last week. Morea case for Harry Hills “Are You Being Framed?” than “Crimewatch”.

    Its not that English rioters are political…its more that our rioters of the last month or so in East Belfast or ardoyne are part of the same “English” Underclass……like so many extras from “Shameless”.
    A relative is a forensics officer with the Met in South London. Of mixed race herself she was in no doubt that it was mere opportunity. It just “happened”. Her concern is that having happened so easily……the next one can be better organised.

    In itself I dont see any connexion to “politics” except a general sense of anger and impotence. A revulsion against Greed, whether committed by a rioting underclass or the hedge fund players.
    They would see little in common with each other but Im sure many folks in Middle England or Middle Yoorp see it that way.
    Not a common ideology just a common Greed.

  • michael-mcivor

    The Australian boxing team is to stay in belfast in between
    fights at next years london olympic games- other teams and nations to follow- england is getting a dangerous name to stay there-

  • Mark

    A interesting point has been made about white collar crime vs what we saw in England recently . They did get Capone for tax evasion after all …

    Like you Fitz I have a relative ( sister ) who works closely with the Met . As a barrister she defends them in wrongful arrests , brutality cases etc . While acknowlegding their opinion’s may be biased , to a man / woman they claim like your relative that they were crimes of opportunity more than anything else .

    Alot has been made of that guy getting shot by S019 ( rightly so ) but little has been made of an execution the following night during the riots . Certain sections of the media seemed more interested in the sexier aspects of the riots .

    Rap music gets a mention as a possible cause and so it should . Since NWA burst onto the scene in LA back in the 80’s , the Po …..lice have been public emeny numero uno . NWA aka Niggaz Wit Attitudes were one of the first Hip Hop Gangsta rap acts whose tracks included ” fuck the police & Gangsta Gangsta . There is a view that Rap music fuelled the fire for the Rodney King riots . That and the fact that the cops beat the shit out of King obviously . Anyway most fads / fashions / trends that start in the US make their way over here . It is interesting that America has never had the hooligan problem though . Thats because their cops wouldn’t stand for it .

    The English Defence Leagues made an appearance and we all know how that could of turned out . There is a misconception that soccer hooliganism is a thing of the past but that’s not the case . As films like the Football Factory and Green Street have shown , the violence has just moved away from the grounds . The drug ecstasy stemmed the violence for about 5 years however the belgian guy who had the receipe for the famous love dove ecstasy tablets was banged up and the quality of the drug deteriorated to such an extent that people stopped taking them . This led to cocaine making a huge comeback on and off the terraces and anyone who knows anything about coke will tell you that the aftermath of taking it leaves you violent , demented and out of control ( so I’m told ) . A lot of the rioters were out of their heads on drink and drugs and this was obvious by the way they acted . The cops were terrified .

    The police force vs the police service is another factor as are so many others that one could be here all day discussing it so I’ll let someone else have a go ……………………

  • What caused the “riots”? Who knows, but an awful lot of sociologese will flow thereon. For the moment it seems enough to note the geographical overlap of deprivation and “riots”.

    Quite honestly, the sightings of a Canary Wharf banker flaunting a bonus-bought Lamborghini, and a millionaire footballer arriving for training in his Bentley (both familiar in Tottenham High Road) might suggest to many a function for a half-brick. Yet the ordinary constable is rousted out to protect property, not enforce social equality.

    A couple of thoughts came to me:

    ¶ In a way we have returned to an earlier use of the term riot.

    I checked this out — where else? — with the OED and found myself down to definition 4b before hitting on the current usage:

    b. Violent disturbance of the peace, esp. by a crowd; civil disorder. Formerly also: depredation, plunder (obs.). Now chiefly in legal contexts.

    Obsolete? Surely this notion of “depredation, plunder” is closer to the context than the Thomian quibbles over the differences between “looting”, burglary, aggravated burglary, “unlawful assembly” and “riot” [the “unlawful assembly” is the planning stage — which presumably would apply, had the offence not be abolished, to tweeting and Facebook.]

    ¶ Why we are so shocked, if only in the manner of Captain Louis Renault.

    Have we somehow come to assume that English air somehow inoculates against rioting? If the French, Germans, Greeks, Australians, Canadians, Spanish, Irish Or lesser breeds without the Law are up for a ruck, why not the English?

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: Quite honestly, the sightings of a Canary Wharf banker flaunting a bonus-bought Lamborghini, and a millionaire footballer arriving for training in his Bentley (both familiar in Tottenham High Road) might suggest to many a function for a half-brick.
    Are you projecting your own social and political sensitivities onto actual rioters? I suspect many of them would have felt just as envious if the cars had been owned by a heart surgeon or a human rights lawyer. In fact, the observation that spivs and boot-boys can get wealthy might actually give them hope.

  • Alanbrooke

    So we hear all this noise about the riots.

    If it’s all true then why hasn’t Dublin been torn to pieces ?

    Big cuts, loads of bankers, reduction in police numbers etc.

    can’t see why Dublin’s not been looted, its citizens have more reason to feel hard done by.

  • lover not a fighter

    I’d wager a rich man’s money or a poor mans money that the vast majority of those involved in the riots are from that “under-class” that we hear so much about these days.

    Sure some others may have been swept along but how many in reality are from well off backrounds.

    I don’t think that we should be too surprised by looters. Afterall its not long ago that the MPs were caught bang to rights looting their expenses.

    Then many of these same MPs looted the publics finances when the bankers got their gambling cockeyed.

    Then the Police and the media were caught with their trousers down while the Police trousered some nice little earners (unfortunately illegally).

    In truth the its hard too understand why the underclass with many of the Ass-classes are not rioting every day.

    I wonder if Cameron ever ponders if some of his High (or is that “Big”) Society ain’t seriously ill ! ! !

  • Greenflag

    Obviously neither Mick nor Fitzjameshorse have been reading their Economist at least not back in 2009 when the Economist warned of the risk of social instability in the wake of austerity measures which would impact most heavily the bottom layers of society ? As Cameron’s ‘role ‘ model MAggie Thatcher famously stated that there was no such thing as society is it not hypocritical of those on the right and those most upset by these ‘senseless ‘ riots that ‘society’ has broken down given that in their ideology society does not exist ?

    @ alan brooke ,

    ‘can’t see why Dublin’s not been looted, its citizens have more reason to feel hard done by’

    Give it time . Beware the long slow burning fuse and the risen people . We’re not there yet and with luck we’ll avoid it but much will depend on the response of the world’s so called democratically elected leaders to this current world wide economic chaos with the middle classes being gouged out of their jobs , savings , retirements and health benefits -while the political and financial services classes live high on the hog . Throw in a Euro zone collapse and another USA recession and cities will burn everywhere in the western world bar perhaps socially cohesive societies such as those in Scandinavia and some smaller european democracies .

    Here’s Max Keiser getting somewhat carried away by referring to Cameron as a schmuck .

  • Reader @ 7:49 pm:

    Of course I am projecting my own social and political sensitivities in this dialogue box: it really isn’t conducive to a desiccated philosophical thesis. There was a further clue in the repeated deployment of first-person pronouns. I also used an opening paragraph to deny having any absolute nostrums.

    All that apart, what cannot be denied is the constant reminder of private greed and public squalor, as Canary Wharf looms in view from every pocket of deprivation in east London, and before the Young, poor and unemployed: the true face of England’s rioters.

    Even The Economist goes some way with that:

    Although his attempt to equate the greed of bankers with that of the looters is a stretch, Mr Miliband’s explanation of the riots carries weight. Britain is unequal by European standards. It has consistently had more young people who are not in education, employment or training (so-called NEETs) than many comparable countries (see chart on previous page). The left can talk persuasively of a lost generation of youth, and the economic obsolescence of low-skilled men: 21% of the rioters who appeared in court were under 18; 90% were male. But Mr Miliband is vulnerable to the riposte that these wayward youths lived through 13 years of a Labour government that threw money at education, welfare-to-work and housing estates.

    Conservatives, such as Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary who will lead the drive against gang culture, can also point out that material deprivation is not the only issue in which Britain is an outlier. It also has a high proportion of single-parent households. “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture”, Mr Cameron has said of the riots. Most likely, it is about both.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nice find Malc. Not ‘either/or’ but ‘and’. The social structure of England always seems always to tend towards inequality in the name of aspiration and social mobility. It’s worth mentioning here than Feeney emphasises this is an English problem, noting that Cardiff riot police could be spared with some certainty that this was not a Welsh problem.

    The emasculation and subsequent ossification of the union movement hasn’t helped in recent times. Capital has become everything with most government’s the last thirty years (with the brief and honourable exception of John Major’s government, and Brown’s too late epiphany) has been about giving the Markets the whip hand as the only accepted form of collective action beyond government.

  • Alanbrooke
  • Greenflag

    ‘Capital has become everything with most government’s the last thirty years has been about giving the Markets the whip hand as the only accepted form of collective action beyond government.’

    Not just collective action but a virtual license to loot , steal and plunder on a scale never before seen in history unless one compares it to the Spanish Empires mass theft of South American gold , or William the Conqueror’s ‘confiscation ‘ of England , or the German nazis looting of Europe in WW2. And even then none of the forementioned ‘grand thefts’ came anywhere close to causing worldwide economic chaos .

    So we are left with the USA nervously hoping that the Eurozone will drag the world economy away from the cliff edge while the Eurozone under German /French ‘control’ if that’s the word look to the USA for recovery . And while both the USA and EU look into the economic and political abyss Russia’s Vladimir Putin refers to the Americans as ‘parasites’ on the world economy and UK Conservatives react in the only way they ever have or can or in Mr Cameron’s words ‘Don’t bash the bankers’

  • Mick Fealty @ 7:44 am:

    I’d go with all of that, and much more.

    It isn’t just the emasculation and subsequent ossification of the union movement which has shifted the economic balance.

    I’ve muttered and nuttered before (and I believe here on Slugger) about the archetypal de-industrialisation of the Lee Valley. Much of that is now becoming the Olympic Park; and much good may it do us:

    Oh! it really is a werry pretty garden,
    And Chingford to the eastward could be seen;
    Wiv a ladder and some glasses you could see to ‘Ackney Marshes,
    If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.

    In my lifetime this was an area of thriving small industries: much of the cheap furniture was made here. There was also — once — heavy engineering — the Great Eastern Railway’s shops at Stratford (1840-1991: R.I.P.) produced some of the finest engines and rolling stock ever.

    Here there were ample opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled employments. It wasn’t that such jobs went out of fashion, it was more that manufacturers and builders found it cheaper to avoid the on-costs of training. Export the production and (later) import the Polish plumbers. Who needed the Industrial Training Boards? — with Thatcher’s government they were the first to go. And the CBI and employers’ associations cheered their end. Now compare Germany.

    Today the biggest employers are probably warehousing — jobs for shelf-stackers and fork-lift truck drivers. Now there’s scope for rising in the world, for pride in one’s work.

    For all the laments about the English lower-orders being under-skilled and work-shy, I’d say this: offer worthwhile apprenticeships, and you’ll have queues round the block.

    All a lot of pretentious waffle, what? Except that it wasn’t just the unions that lost out. So did all the other self-help and social networks (in the old sense of the word). Where are the grassroots of the political parties, the Mothers’ Unions, the amateur dramatics, the sports clubs, even — heaven help us! — things like the “glee clubs”, the numerous “Leagues of Friends”, and the “federations” encouraged by the utility companies? All swept away by the consuming [sic in every ambiguity] need to watch Big Brother.

  • Greenflag

    @ alanbrooke ,

    David Willett’s rule sounds as believable as Santa Claus . Taken to it’s logical conclusion are we to believe that if the English/British had fewer or no children then society would be spared ‘riotous ‘behaviour ? In the USA I believe the ‘freakonomics ‘ whizz kids are reputed to have found a connection between the provision of ‘abortion services’ on demand since Wade Roe with a drop in official crime statistics . Alas it has also been accompanied by the incarceration of more people behind bars as a percentage of population than anywhere else in the western world .

    A lot of sociology may seem like a complete load of bollocks but no more so than the greed is good ideology of the City of London or the wholesale ‘financialisation ‘ of both the USA and UK economies in recent decades which has alongside fawning politicians from both right and left given the world it’s current chaos .

  • Rory Carr

    Mr Cameron himself, before the General Election at least, seemed quite sure that public disorder would follow when people no longer had faith in their politicians.

    Indeed, in a series of policy announcements launched in the Daily Telegraph on 29 June 2009, he seemed almost to think that such behaviour might be justified. But then he was warning against a Labour government led by Gordon Brown:

    “[If] you go into an election pretending you are not going to have to make spending reductions, then you have to make them, and then you really do have riots on the streets because people do not have faith in their politicians.”

    It becomes an entirely different kettle-of-fish when it is a Tory-led government under his premiership which has lost public faith. (I was going to say “faith and trust” but it really is the absolute trust in the further erosion of health, education and social services that Cameron is contemplating and how it will further emmiserate the already worst-off that is so unsettling.)

    Now that he is in charge it is no longer a case of people driven to the streets by a lack of faith in the political class but rather a case of a loss of the nation’s “moral compass” (not to be confused with the nation’s moral speedometer presumably, although he might have thought to have made appeal instead to a need for a recalibration of the nation’s moral Tom-Tom). In any case we can be sure that, while the notion of a Tory prime minister lecturing the nation on its lack of morals will not be taken amiss by those good burghers of England’s towns and cities who will assume that it applies not to them (heaven forfend!) but rather to the great unwashed, it is a sentiment that may not travel so well into those parts of the inner-city where he feels the compass is most adrift from True North.

  • Greenflag

    ‘ when people no longer had faith in their politicians.’

    On this point I recommend to all sluggerites interested in a more than skin deep cut into the whys an wherefores of the failings of political systems in particular with reference to Ireland but also on a wider front to listen to the late Peter Mair’s speech at the McGill Summer School . It can be downloaded from the rolling news and comment menu on slugger -first item in fact . It lasts about 20 minutes from 30 minutes into the stream to 50 and is followed by former GP Minister Eamon Ryan which I plan to listen to later .

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Professor Peter Mair before now but he certainly analyses the current political malaise in this country and more importantly puts forward some decent proposals for necessary change . While trees rot from the top down even political ones the point Peter Mair makes is that without a strong bottom push from an active citizenry the pols in Ireland and elsewhere will continue their wheel spinning ways .

    Thanks to Slugger for listing Professor Peter Mair’s passing -probably one of the top most interesting items I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to at least in the political sphere .

    David Farrel’s comments re Peter Mair is worth reading and the speech can be downloaded from the comment section

    A pin-dropping speech at this year’s MacGill Summer School – a perfectly pitched overview of what’s wrong with our political culture and what should change (he was the third speaker in this stream; see also here).

  • Greenflag

    oops error above-please ignore the last paragraph and the prior sentence starting with David Farrell ;(

  • abucs

    What caused the riots?

    I don’t know, but a lack of respect for community and a lack of common empathy allowed it to proceed.