Explosive cocktail

Print edition : September 09, 2011

Individualistic materialism combined with anger among those who feel socially and economically excluded led to the riots in Britain.

in London

A property on fire near Reeves Corner in Croydon, South London, on August 9.-LEWIS WHYLD/AP

THE Britain of George Orwell's romantic vision a Britain of old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist may now exist only in fantasy. But the glorious British summer of warm beer, cricket on the village green, and long shadows on county grounds is still very real. Yet, there is also something faintly menacing, amateur sociologists say, about the long, boozy British summer evenings that makes people edgy. Even angry. It is not a mere coincidence, they argue, that historically some of Britain's worst riots 1981, 1985 and 2001 have taken place in warmer months. And, now, another summer, another riot.

The summer has become the serious season, wrote novelist and Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr.

So, what caused the riots that shook London and other British cities in early August?

Anger against the government's economic policies? Pull of rampant consumerism? A culture of entitlement gone mad? Or, just midsummer madness induced by boredom and edginess?

Predictions about a summer of discontent were being made for months. Unprecedented public spending cuts, involving millions of job losses and reduction in welfare benefits of some of the most vulnerable people, had prompted fears that a backlash was waiting to happen. But nobody thought that it would take the form it did when, for nearly a week, gangs of hooded and masked youths took control of Britain's streets and town centres in an orgy of what was widely seen as mindless violence.

On the rampage

Back in the spring, when the government was warned of a difficult summer, the worst that was expected was a wave of industrial strikes and protest marches, not an army of teenagers on the rampage.

The trouble began in the north London suburb of Tottenham on August 6 after a protest against the death of a local Afro-Caribbean youth, Mark Duggan (29), in a police shootout turned violent. From the inner-city racial hotspots in the north, east and south-east, it quickly spread to the more prosperous western parts of the capital such as Ealing and upscale Notting Hill, where David Cameron lived before he became Prime Minister. And even as a heavily outnumbered police were struggling to control a worsening situation in London, copycat attacks were taking place in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

The story everywhere was the same: young rioters running through shopping centres smashing shop fronts, vandalising property, picking up whatever took their fancy (designer shoes, televisions, bags of clothing) and walking off. One even proudly put his loot on Twitter. In scenes of random violence, residential properties were attacked and vehicles, including buses and private cars, were set on fire not the best of advertisements for modern Britain months before the London Olympics.

But amid the arson and looting, with scenes of burnt-out buildings, charred vehicles and smashed-up shop windows telecast around the world, there were also stories of heroism, dignity and courage: how an Indian shopkeeper singlehandedly fought back the rioters; how a father who lost his son set aside his personal grief to lead a campaign for peace; how a disabled Afro-Caribbean grandmother, hailed as the heroine of Hackney, shamed a group of hooligans into silence; and how parents frogmarched their own children to police stations after discovering they had been involved in rioting.

In the history of riots, the latest were unique in that they had no obvious complexion. They were certainly not racial, nor a fallout from any specific government policy or action. The rioters had no obvious demands. At least none was spelt out. Few, perhaps, even knew who Mark Duggan was. Duggan's own parents admonished the rioters saying, Mark wouldn't have wanted this.

Tellingly, the rioters did not fit either a specific socio-economic or ethnic profile. While most were, indeed, from the socially deprived Afro-Caribbean community, there were also people from white middle-class families. They included an Oxford University graduate; a woman who aspired to join the Royal Air Force; a young ambassador for London Olympics; and a bright, privately educated teenager, daughter of successful professionals.

Even sympathetic observers struggled to make sense beyond broad generalisations about economic and social factors. One progressive black commentator noted that the series of violent disorders that followed the Tottenham incident were singularly devoid of any political coherence.

A MASKED YOUTH pulls a burning garbage bin set on fire by rioters in Hackney, East London, on August 8.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS/AP

True, the initial riots in London's Tottenham did have a direct cause the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, who then refused to engage with his family and supporters about the circumstances of his death. But beyond Tottenham, those who took to the streets last week failed to advance any cause, embrace any ideal or articulate any agenda, wrote The Guardian's Gary Younge.

Franklyn Addo, a black teenager from a deprived estate in East London, said he was appalled by the animalistic behaviour of those behind the violence.

People are tarnishing the memory of Mark Duggan by committing atrocities in his name despite members of his family imploring them to stop. They are using recent events to fulfil personal vendettas against the Metropolitan Police, to steal items from shops, to commit organised crime, and to contribute to unrest in the country, he argued.

Swept up by the tide

Most rioters were hard put to explain their behaviour. Some said they were there simply for thrills. It was apparently cool to be with the gang. Many claimed they were swept up by the tide and once there they just joined in.

If this was a social reaction, it was a social reaction to the need for Gucci jeans, was the acerbic reaction of an Afro-Caribbean youth worker to suggestions that the rioters were protesting against social exclusion and alienation.

Shaun Bailey, who has worked with young people from poorer backgrounds through his group MyGeneration, blamed rampant consumerism and a lack of personal responsibility.

Same street, different lives. Modern society means I see everything that Madonna sees, but I can only have a fraction of it.... We have trained our children to consume, he said in a newspaper interview pointing out that young people brought up in a consumerist culture were not satisfied with what they had. It was what others had that they craved for.

Who would have thought that a peaceful protest in Tottenham would have resulted in riots in Birmingham and Manchester, he said echoing the dominant view, even in the less doctrinaire right-wing circles, that free-market consumerism had a lot to answer for.

Greed is good' philosophy

It was the so-called Thatcherite revolution, the social and economic upheaval under former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 1980s, that introduced millions of Britons to a certain kind of modern individualistic materialism based on the notion that there was no such thing as a society, but only individuals.

But it was Labour under Tony Blair that gave new respectability to the Thatcherite philosophy of greed is good and made it fashionable. Peter Mandelson, a leading Labour figure, famously declared that the party was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. The boom years, until the crash of 2008, saw businessmen, professionals, bankers, hedge-fund managers and speculators make obscene money. And they were applauded for their enterprise.

Politicians, too, as the MPs' expenses scandal revealed, had their hands in the till. This, it is argued, bred envy, frustration and anger among the millions who feel economically and socially excluded. It is an explosive cocktail; and, well, it exploded in the most destructive manner on August 6.

The Independent newspaper, calling it Britain's Katrina moment, opined that the riots flowed from a conflagration of aggression from a socially and economically excluded underclass.

VIDEO GRAB OF a gang of youth in Barking, East London, standing over a Malaysian student, Mohammed Asyraf Haziq, 20, who had been attacked and mugged in the street earlier by another group during rioting on August 8. As one youth appeared to help Haziq to his feet, others took the opportunity to open his backpack and remove other valuables.-ABDUL HAMID/AP

A disaffected criminal fringe, made up of people who feel they have no stake in the society, has decided to exert itself on the streets. Alienated young men and women, some of them barely more than children, have taken this as an opportunity to steal, riot, burn and to generally kick against authority, it wrote.

Given the backgrounds of some of the rioters, the underclass theory is not entirely correct, but it does not invalidate theories about the contagious effect of consumerism that has affected all classes.

The debate is still raging as politicians move from firefighting to point-scoring. Cameron has been accused by Labour and his own Liberal Democrat coalition partners of knee-jerk reaction after his threat to take away welfare benefits of people whose children may have been involved in the riots and throwing them out of state-subsidised housing. Such measures plus his attacks on a sick and broken society which has lost its moral compass are seen as an attempt to use the situation to push the Conservatives' pet ideas about society and its values.

One thing, though, is certain. As The Economist argued, the riots of 2011 are bound to change the way England thinks about itself. Policing, which came in for widespread criticism, will get tougher; welfare benefits will be further curtailed; and attitudes towards the young will change, and so will be notions of what constitutes responsible parenting.

It is to be hoped that the British sense of humour survives the upheaval. There was certainly no dearth of it as London burned. A cartoon in The Telegraph showed a policeman cheerfully direct two old female tourists to the Olympics Village with these words: The Olympics stadium? Turn left at the second burnt-out bus and right at the looted electrical store.

And in The Financial Times, a grumpy housewife tells her wretched-looking husband as she flicks channels on a brand new television: There's nothing but looting on this TV you just looted.

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