Anarchy in the UK: The Socio-Economic Factors Behind The London Riots

By: David Smith   Date: 19 August 2011

About The Author

David Smith

An English journalist who, when he's not exploring the social consequences of political actions,

David Smith, Investigative Journalist

 

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The worst riots in England for several decades have drawn widely divergent interpretations from politicians and commentators. Views range from the right-wing position, which is that the rioters were all “thugs and delinquents” and should be punished accordingly, to the liberal view that prevailing socio-economic conditions in Britain played a major role in provoking an upsurge of anger.

Anarchy in the UK: The Socio-Economic Factors Behind The London Riots

London Erupts in Violence and Chaos: Who’s to Blame?
Photo Credit: Beacon Radio

One reason the events sparked so much speculation about their causes was because the rioting was not simply in one place, but in cities across England. The first riots started in the working-class North London suburb of Tottenham on August 6, following demonstrations against the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a black 29-year-old father of four. The first rioters were black Londoners, but violence and looting soon spread to other parts of London, then to other major cities, including Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Bristol, Liverpool and Birmingham. A simplistic racial interpretation of events became redundant as whites, Asians and blacks all rioted. But one thing most of the rioters had in common was their youth. Around 73% were under the age of 25.

The sheer scale of events was unprecedented in modern Britain. London has known previous riots, in Brixton in 1981, and Tottenham, in 1985. Both were riots by the black community against perceived police repression and brutality.  In the 1985 Tottenham riot, a police officer was stabbed to death and more than 50 more officers ended up in prison. But the violence did not spread beyond those disadvantaged, working-class black communities.

The recent British riots had more in common with the 2005 riots in France, which were sparked by the death of two teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. First, the French suburbs exploded with violence and then the rioting rapidly spread to suburban areas across the country. For three weeks, cars were burned, buildings were attacked and young people clashed with police. The riots culminated in a national state of emergency and the eventual cost was hundreds of millions of euros.

Both the French and British riots started in poor areas, where disaffected ethnic minorities face high levels of unemployment. (The rate of unemployment for 16-24-year old blacks in Britain is around 48%), and there are tensions between youths and police. But the riots then spread to other communities across England and France, including predominantly white neighbourhoods.

Matthew Moran, a research associate at the International Centre for Security Analysis, King’s College London, said:

“There were great similarities in the government response to the riots. The French rioters were labelled by politicians as ‘voyous’, or ‘thugs’, and both the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the British Police, have also labelled the rioters “thugs and delinquents”. This attitude serves a political function as it lays the ground for a response based firmly on repression. But it gives us a binary view of the situation so there are good guys and bad guys and if we get rid of the bad guys by putting them in jail everything will be okay. But I doubt very much the English riots were not influenced by socio-economic factors.”

Moran said the British government should remember how the French Government’s repressive approach had failed to address the socio-economic causes of the violence and more rioting followed in 2007.

“There were aftershocks after the deaths of some young people in a similar suburb, which was a sign that the underlying problems hadn’t been addressed. While on the surface the French rioters did not articulate clear demands, there was a message underlying the violence.

"Inhabitants of the banlieues are excluded from mainstream society, and the violence and destruction represented a revolt against this exclusion.”

The right-wing British media has also refused to consider socio-economic causes. The columnist Max Hastings, who attended the private Charterhouse School, where annual fees are £29,430, wrote in the Daily Mail:

“The rioters are illiterate and innumerate, beyond maybe some dexterity with computer games and BlackBerries. They are essentially wild beasts.”

And he continued: “They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others. Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it...

“...The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist.”

Similarly, Damian Thompson in the Conservative broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, wrote:

"...Britain’s educational establishment has cringed helplessly in the face of a gang culture that rejects every tenet of liberal society. It’s violent, it’s sexist, it’s homophobic and it’s racist. But it is broadly tolerated by many people in the black community, which has lost control of its teenage youths.”

But Moran, at King’s College, said the riots would not be fully understood unless politicians and analysts delved deeper into the causes. He said:

“In the French riots, attacks were mostly directed towards state-owned buildings such as schools and police stations, symbolic of an education system that is selective and a justice system that appears discriminatory. The London riots have seen the opposite: attacks on private property and businesses. This also tells us something. Is it possible that these young people are attacking a consumer-oriented society in which they feel they have no stake?

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