London is burning.

This morning we woke up to images of the black, charred skeletons of double-decker buses, smouldering buildings, glass covered streets, looted shops and crowds of hoodie-masked youths standing off against police in riot gear; basically, scenes of complete lawlessness. We’ve seen images like this recently – in completely different contexts – but this wasn’t the latest chapter in the Arab Spring. This was rioting… in London.

Areas of London (and greater London) affected by riots.

The more I heard, the more I wondered. What sparked this? Was anyone expecting it? And why now? Is it just a coincidence that this is all taking place as world markets plunge? As the US credit rating is downgraded for the first time in history? As a debt crisis engulfs half of Europe? There is a palpable sense of uncertainty – even in Australia, our little island supposedly protected from financial turmoil thanks to buoyant resource prices and an emerging Asia.

The simple answer is yes; everything is linked. And yes, some people predicted this. When the global economy declines, the malaise eventually (and probably faster than you think) reaches all of us. Unfortunately, it is always the lower and middle class citizens that are most exposed to these economic winters. It is no coincidence that Tottenham, which is the epicentre of these riots, is one of London’s poorest boroughs. According to Mary Riddle from The Telegraph there are “10000 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance and 54 applicants chasing every registered job vacancy”. Fifty-four applicants for every job? It’s staggering. In the words of blogger Laurie Penny, “angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their own communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it.

Similarly, from Futile Democracy (http://bit.ly/rfszqA)

“There can be no mistaking that the rioting, vandalism and violence are motivated by and large, by opportunism… It has no political motivation on the surface. But the underlying issue, the social deprivation, high unemployment, high VAT rates, the end of EMA, rising inflation, the mass of cuts to youth services, and the unfair and shock economic violence by a government that has grown up enjoying the benefits of a strong public service… is an obvious precursor to social violence from communities that feel ever more excluded.”

It is no coincidence that these riots have taken place against a backdrop of fiscal austerity, against a backdrop of escalating education prices, against a backdrop of corporate tax evasion, against a backdrop of ‘News of the World’ style phone hacking scandals.

There appears to be a sense of moral crisis in Britain.

People are feeling deeply alienated – they have no stake in society – and politics of cynicism and of desperation are filling that emptiness.

So basically, we have a group of people, not just youth, who are jobless (or underworked), bored, frustrated, angry and feeling ostracised and neglected. Whether they realise it or not, these riots are political.

Blogger Laurie Penny (http://bit.ly/qkjyns):

“Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.”

[These people] will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news.

A double decker bus burns as riot police attempt to regain control.

Apart from social protest, journalists, politicians and bloggers have given a myriad of other reasons for this unrest. Technology, like twitter, has been listed as one. The Home Secretary Theresa May put it down to ‘sheer criminality’ and others agree, with claims it is opportunistic theft and vandalism, nothing more.

Home Secretary Theresa May

“There is no excuse for violence, no excuse for looting, no excuse for thuggery, and those who are responsible must know that they will be brought to justice. I think this is about sheer criminality.” 

Personally, I cannot even comprehend how hard life must be for some of these people. And I guess I can understand how years of marginalisation and alienation could burst forth in an explosion of violence and pandemonium. Because during that time, you’d feel a power and control that you would rarely feel in the ‘normal’ world. It doesn’t make it right, certainly, but it sure is an obvious call for help.

I wonder, could this happen in Australia? Or the US? We’ve never really seen anything like this (I’m purposefully not including the Cronulla Riots in this category).

Anyway, here are some interesting articles/blog posts I read during the last few hours:

Riots: the underclass lashes out – Telegraph http://tgr.ph/onsxtY

Rioting Widens in London and Spreads Elsewhere – NYTimes.com http://nyti.ms/r7oYsH

London riots / UK riots: verified areas – Google Maps http://bit.ly/nTL83i

Penny Red: Panic on the streets of London. http://bit.ly/qkjyns

Panic on the streets of London: Futile Democracy. http://bit.ly/rfszqA

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8 thoughts on “London is burning.

  1. Raising some excellent points here Nick. Naturally this particular issue was raised in a number of differrent settings today; in tutorials, over dinner and across a table at the Uni Bar. Many of your points were raised with equal gusto, albeit perhaps not as well articulated.

    The notion of a moral crisis in Britain is the point that seems to resonate most in my reading of your post. The fervent riots and violence have evidently stemmed from the social, political and economic problems that plague London and largely Britain but I find the interesting element in the idea that such tension and frustration can be relatively dormant in a society waiting to erupt after an unfortunate, ultimately catalytic event. Brings back thoughts of HSC History; Bloody Sunday and the ‘Shot that Echoed Around the World’ reminding me of the fragile and importantly constructed moral and legal fibre of our societies.

    My father raised the point of the economic disparity and class orientation that is entrenched in British society as a key factor, a situation we are fortunately not faced with in Australia. Furthermore, there seems to be (I will tread lightly here) a deep seated racial element to these riots compounded by the obvious lack of economic opportunity detailed above. An issue that British Government has failed to adequately address despite the clear inadequacies and injustices suffered by these communities repeatedly.

    Essentially just procrastinating by commenting, but glad to see your being topical and I can’t compromise by social media engagement now can I?

    Kind Regards,
    Ellis Lanyon
    Twitter: @ellislanyon

  2. “And yes, some people predicted this.”

    The News of the World predicted that Will and Kate would get married for 10 years – before they did. Enough monkeys with enough darts and eventually some of them are going to hit bullseye. That doesn’t make them insightful, it just means in an ever more connected world their are more opinions such that you’ll always be able to find some of them are going to be accurate.

    The nonsense about this being political stems more directly from it being economic – and while they are related ideas, what you need to understand is the degree of materialism that is driving people over here (I’m an Aussie in Leeds).

    The economic downturn means they can’t buy all the latest “stuff” that they’ve always had given to them on a plate, so why not riot and break into the local Curry’s store so you can get a new iPhone and TV, or wherever else to grab some new clothes. And while you’re at it, let’s just go on some mindless destruction. What are they protesting? Nothing. There is not a political movement here. It is political only in that the welfare nation that the UK is has allowed these youths to lead lives where they don’t need to get jobs, or contribute positively to the community.

    Life is not hard for these people, life is too easy for them and they are bored.

    • Cheers for the comment; I appreciate the different point of view. Interestingly, most of my friends that actually live in the UK are saying very similar things – so, perhaps I am missing some here…

      You raise an interesting point that I’ve heard a few times in the last few days:
      “It is political only in that the welfare nation that the UK is has allowed these youths to lead lives where they don’t need to get jobs, or contribute positively to the community.”

      But what’s the alternative? Stop peoples welfare payments? Let them descend into poverty? Is that the ‘Great’ Britain you want to see? I don’t really what else the gov can do.

      • Firstly, I wrote their when I meant there. I really hate when others make that mistake now I’ve done it myself. Trivial I know.

        Secondly, with regards to welfare, you’re right it is a difficult one. Leading the questions into an emotive “let them descend into poverty” is what makes open discussion about this so difficult. The question is how can we reduce/stop welfare payments while providing an alternative that encourages and supports them being productive. Or perhaps welfare payments should come with a condition of doing “community services” types of work providing people are able to work – ie not disabled, or new mothers.

        I also think part of the problem is the marginal difference between minimum wage and benefits. If you can earn almost as much from benefits as you can from minimum wage – where is the motivation to work? The challenge is that the other side of the argument is “let them descend into poverty” but perhaps that is exactly what is needed to motivate people. And what defines poverty? These people can afford to blow their cash buying consumables that they don’t need – so maybe they can afford to get paid a bit less. Maybe benefits assigned based upon actual living requirements – food, shelter, basic clothing.

        So I agree that the alternative may not seem appealing but we have just seen what the current approach results in – so what changes can be made that will have a positive impact. Since I think unless there is some serious action taken towards those involved now, it will not deter people from this behaviour in future.

        In a related note on the riots, I actually feel for the police trying to get involved. It is extremely hard when everyone is out of their houses to see who is causing trouble and who isn’t. The last time there was a significant protest and an incident with police led to an innocent man getting knocked over – and subsequently died – so how do they deal with the rioters? In a do-gooder world where they are not allowed to take action that I would consider “reasonable force” in the situation for fear of legal action being taken against them, they are now being criticised for not taking enough action.

  3. Just a quick follow up – I find this sort of article interesting: http://www.thepunch.com.au/articles/doling-out-excuses-for-the-inexcusable/

    Not necessarily because I think it is 100% accurate and right but more because it is the right sort of thing to be provoking the debate. Higher level politically focused accusations are crap. It is not up to the Government to solve all problems, it is up to people.

    I think personal ownership of these issues is key at all levels. Yes, Government can do a bit more to help, but so can everyone else.

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