UK Riots: Reaping the Whirlwind | by Kirsty Hughes

by Aug 28, 2011All Articles

Rising unemployment, prolonged and growing income inequality, a consumerist, crass society, a cult of the deregulated private sector, a mediocre and in some cases corrupt political and media elite, the list goes on. Not all of this may explain the violent, group behaviour that characterised the English riots but it lies behind the existence of a large group of marginalised and alienated and in some cases criminalised youth, many of whom took part in the riots.
It is Friday, 12 August, and there is a huge bang at the end of my street in north London, like someone ramming a car into a shop window, followed by a cacophony of wailing sirens. I look out of my window, two workmen are running to see what is going on, while a mother yells at her teenage son from a window “get inside, now!”. It turns out it is just a car accident.

But Londoners’ nerves are frayed at the end of a week of rioting across the capital and across England, which left some senior police officers calling it the worst urban violence and disorder in living memory. The riots started on a Saturday night in Tottenham, north London, after a peaceful protest that afternoon at police shooting dead a black man they were arresting two days before. But by nightfall, a widespread riot was underway, with shops being attacked, huge amounts of looting going on under the noses of police who held back in many cases from intervening, and fires blazing in shops and in flats above them.

On Monday night the full force of copycat riots hit England (though notably not Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland). Riots started in Hackney in east London in late afternoon, with youths confronting police, attacking police cars, and looting shops, and steadily spread – until by 10 pm there were huge fires in a number of areas of south and west London, and the start of similar unrest, with violent looting and arson taking place, in Birmingham and Manchester and across a number of smaller towns. Looting focused especially on brands – trainers, electrical goods, and clothing: the cult of consumerism reaching
perhaps its logical conclusion.

Left-Right Divisions
As an uneasy calm settled across the capital, with more than twice the normal number of police on the streets, British MPs were recalled from their holidays to debate the crisis. Prime Minister David Cameron branded the rioters as “sick” and “criminals” but refused to reverse planned cuts in police spending or to set up a public enquiry – though an enquiry by the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee is planned. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition, trod cautiously at first, not wanting to be labelled as soft on criminals, looters and rioters. But as the week went on, he stepped up calls for reversing police cuts, a full public inquiry into the causes and handling of the riots, and finally, crucially, dared to raise social and economic issues as relevant: “In London, in particular, we know that there are huge areas of wealth that coexist with huge areas of poverty. Those parallel worlds mean that [poorer] people not only don’t have a stake in society but feel that actually what matters in society is something that they can’t even reach.”

Much remains unknown about the range of people involved in the riots, but they appear to have been overwhelmingly young, mainly between 16 and 25 years old, though with children as young as 11 and some adults in their 40s and 50s participating. The rioters were mostly male but included young women, and a whole mix of ethnic backgrounds – white, black, Asian – multicultural Britain on view in the worst possible way. Magistrates’ courts rapidly set up all-night sittings to hear the cases of those arrested, in what looked increasingly like rough and politicised justice, as harsher than normal sentences were handed down (six months in one case for taking a bottle of water from a supermarket).

Those facing the courts ranged from the unemployed to schoolchildren, students, social worker trainees, teaching assistants and others. How and why the violence and looting took off and spread so rapidly will be debated and analysed for many months to come, but its spread to so many areas clearly had little to do with the initial police shooting in Tottenham and everything to do with the state of modern England – 30 years of Thatcherism and its imitators (Blair, Cameron) finally coming home to roost.

Alienation and Inequality
That England’s urban areas have an alienated and poor underclass is visible to anyone spending time in London or other towns: disaffected, anti-social youths
hang around on street corners – many are in gangs, they are in communities within communities, operating their own codes of loyalty to each other, not to the society around them. Youth unemployment is almost one million – 20% of those between 16 and 25 years old, and over twice the overall adult unemployment rate which hovers at 7.8% (just under 2.5 million people).

The UK has become over the last 30 years one of the most unequal societies in Europe in terms of income distribution. The cult of growth, consumerism and conspicuous consumption, the attacks on public services especially welfare benefits (it was Thatcher who famously said “there is no such thing as society”) and the promotion of selfish individualism (cutting taxes on the rich, deregulating business and banks) have created a society that reeks of exclusion and difference.

Recession Adds to the Stress
The UK economy faced a deeper recession in 2009-10 than France or Germany and growth is barely back in positive figures. In the 16 months, since the Con-Dem coalition has been in power, huge cuts to public spending including to local councils, have been announced, and some have started to bite. Councils have cut many youth services that tried to engage with unemployed and alienated youth. Youth workers have lost their jobs, many youth centres and programmes (including those trying to build better relations between youth and police) have closed. Educational maintenance allowance – a small benefit that helped poor 16 and 17 year olds stay in education – has been cut, university fees have tripled. This is not the land of opportunity it was made out to be.

Grab-It-All Society
Yet those who have money are all too conspicuous. English society has in many ways become harsher and cruder in the last decades – the loud, anti-social and rude drunks shouting on town streets many nights of the week come from all classes and backgrounds. And the obsession with designer goods and consumerism has
abated only a little during the recession.

The banks especially seem to have taken society for a ride – at the heart of the global financial meltdown and the subsequent economic crisis, some of them nationalised by the government – yet British bankers have bounced back. As much as £14 billion was paid in financial sector bonuses last year: nothing seems to have changed.

Unloved Politicians…and Media
Nor is British political life a vibrant representation of inclusive democracy: the MPs’ expenses scandal which broke in 2009 was shocking, especially in the false and excessive claims that too many MPs had made, but also in putting into the clear light of day the amounts of subsidies, for food, accommodation, furniture and more, that MPs can legitimately claim. Declining trust and rising cynicism in the political system are an unsurprising result.

The recent exposure of the phone-hacking scandal at the Murdoch-owned News of the World – with a whole range of figures including politicians and celebrities
having their phones hacked by journalists at the tabloid, and the slowness of politicians (in fear of Murdoch’s huge political influence) and police to respond until forced to – add to the growing impression of a tarnished, inadequate political and media establishment.

Kirsty Hughes () is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom.

This article was first published in EPW.

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