19 August 2011.
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.
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?”
Political Action, Socio-Economic Consequences
Dr Paul Bagguley, who lectures on the sociology of protest at Leeds University, agreed that much of the rioting was caused by disenfranchised youths in working-class areas feeling they have no stake in modern consumerism.
“The initial explosion of anger was in the black community in London, but it soon moved beyond that.
"In most parts of the country the main activity was looting, which is why I think of them as ‘consumer society riots’. They stole what they couldn’t have, but found eminently desirable, such as electronic devices, mobile phones, Nike clothing and flat screen TVs.”
Although the rioters were not following a political movement, and had no leader, their actions were political, said Dr Bagguley.
“There were no banners, or slogans, but the actions were implicitly political. A lot of the rioters felt they didn’t have any other way of expressing their grievances in a society in which people relate to each other primarily through consumption.”
Grievances about being unable to afford desirable items are bound to be exacerbated in a society which has a big divide between rich and poor. As long ago as 2007, Sir Ronald Cohen, the multi-millionaire founder of private equity firm Apax Partners, said the widening gap between Britain’s rich and poor was a growing worry.
“Entrepreneurial economies which have high rates of growth and high rates of job creation do lead to great divergences in wealth. When economic situations get bad, it takes a spark to ignite a violent reaction,” he wrote, presciently, four years ago.
In 2010, a Government report, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality, scrutinised the degree to which the UK has become more unequal over the past 30 years. The report showed that the household wealth of the top 10% of the population stood at £853,000 and more – over 100 times higher than the wealth of the poorest 10%, which is £8,800 or below. For the highest-paid workers, such as bankers and chief executives, the division was even starker, with individuals in the top 1% each possessing total household wealth of £2.6m or more.
The report also noted “profound and startling differences” between areas. Median hourly wages in the most deprived 10th of areas – some of the ones in which rioting occurred - were 40% lower than in the least deprived. Meanwhile, a report by Save the Children revealed that 13% of the UK’s children were living in severe poverty.
This poverty is apparent in the London areas where the initial riots took place. In Haringey, where the trouble began, four out of 10 children are born into poverty, and Tottenham has London’s highest unemployment rate. In Hackney and Tower Hamlets, where there was also unrest, there are similar levels of poverty.
Yet, the Conservative government’s cuts in the budgets of borough councils – which are intended to slash the UK’s spending deficit – have fallen disproportionately on poorer areas. Haringey saw the second-highest reduction in its budget among London boroughs, with funds due to fall by one-third over the next three years and the council cutting 75% of spending on “youth services”.
Lewisham, which was also hit by violence, is one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods. The borough council has been forced to close five libraries and cut back youth services, including advice centres for pregnant teenagers and unemployed youth.
Paul Bagguley said:
“The youths in these areas who rioted are not idiots. They watch TV and they pick up things off the web. They may not read newspapers because of falling circulation among young people, but they know what’s going on in politics and how it affects their lives. They also feel that their grievances are no longer addressed by parliamentary politics any more, which limits their means of self-expression.”
Dr Bagguley felt the simmering resentment in poorer communities had been exacerbated by a number of recent events in Britain, including the 2009 scandal over MPs’ expenses, the continuing culture of massive bonuses in the City of London, and the recent phone-hacking scandal, which exposed a culture of complicity between media and politicians.
“When Cameron makes his arguments about moral decline in the inner cities, he is on really thin ice. People will say ‘look at MPs expenses, and look at phone hacking - these journalists are your friends and they were arrested for hacking phones’. He hasn’t got a leg to stand on,” said Paul Bagguley.
The theory that the riots had their roots in social deprivation finds support in the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their cult book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. They point out that “social problems” (crime, ill-health, imprisonment rates, mental illness, etc) are far more common in unequal societies than ones with better economic distribution.
Richard Wilkinson said:
“What the bankers with their bonuses and MPs with their expenses were doing was helping themselves when they thought they could get away with it. These sums are much larger than what the kids in the riots were taking. The bankers can get away with it because of the huge difference in social background. People are very aware of the lifestyles of celebrities, and the shops are full of what separates the kids from that lifestyle, so for them to smash windows and make off with mobile phones and trainers is surprising only in that it doesn’t happen more often.”