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18 August, 2011  ▪  Edward Lucas

Anarchy in the UK

Riots entrench views rather than change minds

The riots that transfixed Britain in early August - bringing at least five deaths and £100m in damage to property - confirmed many beliefs, albeit mostly contradictory ones.

For the extreme right, they were proof that multiculturalism had failed. They vindicated Enoch Powell, the former Conservative politician who warned in 1968 that mass immigration would lead to the streets of Britain running with blood. Some even tried to stitch the events in Britain together with the massacre in Norway by Andres Breivik: these were all opening skirmishes in a “Eurabian civil war” between a hard-pressed White population and the alien, mainly Muslim immigrants bent on displacing them.

That view is nonsense. This was no race war. Though they were predominantly young and poor, the rioters were of all skin colours and backgrounds. So too were those who opposed them. London’s police force is still mainly white (though a lot less so than in previousyears). But the people who came out to guard their shops and businesses were a rainbow mixture of modern urban Britain: Muslims and Sikhs, Asians and Africans, Poles and Portuguese. Even communities that do not normally get on were united in their desire to see off the mob. Plenty of other things are wrong with Britain, but this was not a story of immigrants bashing their hosts.

The ultra-left agrees with the ultra-right that the riots were about race. But whereas the nativists see an alien menace, the leftists see racism. The riots marked the fightback of the dispossessed, disadvantaged ethnic minority communities, who already bear the brunt of both economic disadvantage and police harassment. From this viewpoint the spark for the riot was the “execution” of a black man in Tottenham, Mark Duggan, by a police bullet during an attempted arrest. Many of the youths who were rioting had been the victims of repeated, sometimes daily, “stop and search” harassment by the police. This was their revenge.

This argument is attractively simple but also fails to fit the facts. Racial prejudice exists in Britain. It is diminishing, particularly in the big cities (not least because those who do not like living in a multi-ethnic society have moved to the suburbs or countryside). It is not a simple matter of whites against blacks (let alone whites against non-whites).

Also mistaken is the other main left-wing argument, the neo-Marxist view that the riots were an insurrection by the poor against the rich, sparked by the cuts in government spending which fall particularly hard on poor young people. The rioters included children from middle-class families and people with decent white-collar jobs (the first person to be convicted was an assistant teacher). Some of those who lost property in the riots were humble shopkeepers, poorer than the looters who destroyed their businesses. The rioters certainly had economic grievances (including their lack of expensive designer footwear, large televisions and other consumer goodies). But the fact that a grievance exists does not mean that it is justified.

The remaining arguments are more sophisticated, though both incomplete and held with stubborn conviction. Some believe that the problem is chiefly one of policing. The growth of political correctness and bureaucracy over the past 30 years has shackled the police. They are unwilling to crack down hard on young troublemakers for fear of being called heavy-handed. They spend far too much time filling in forms at the police station and too little out on the street. Added to this is a reluctance to use modern riot-control weapons, such as rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas, which are seen as “un-British” (though this does not stop their use in Northern Ireland).

This argument has some merit. Policing, like banking, is a confidence trick. It requires people to believe that the police could be anywhere; even though they physically cannot be (just as depositors in a bank believe that they can withdraw their money at any time, even though no bank carries that much cash in its vaults). Once the belief in police omnipresence wears thin, people start committing crimes—perhaps just graffiti, littering and other petty vandalism, but also perhaps theft and crimes of violence. The government takes this seriously and has just hired William Bratton, the former commissioner of police in New York, as an adviser. He pioneered the “broken windows” theory of policing, which argues that small but conspicuous signs of decay corrode public confidence and encourage the lawless.

A parallel but similarly important argument concerns the failure of the criminal justice system. Most criminals are not caught. Most of those who are caught are not brought to justice (instead they receive a “caution” or a similar slap on the wrist). Most of those who come to court are not convicted. Most of those who are convicted do not go to jail. Most of those who do go to jailre-offend once they are out. This discourages everyone. The police feel let down by sloppy work by the Crown Prosecution Service, which has low-powered lawyers and an appalling habit of making mistakes in paperwork that doom cases once they come to court. The public feels let down because sentencing is light (most jail sentences are reduced for “good behaviour” because the prisons are so overcrowded). The taxpayer might also wonder why the £1,000 per week it costs to keep a prisoner in jail provides so little benefit.

Another failure is in prosecuting white-collar crime, in which by bankers, accountants, and other well-heeled professions steal far larger sums of money with near-impunity. It was jarring to hear MPs who narrowly escaped jail for fiddling their expenses (or are still facing potential prosecution) harrumphing about rioters who had looted far smaller amounts. The sense of unfairness, of one law for the rich and one for the poor, is corrosive.

The criminal justice system could certainly be better. But seeing the riots solely as a failure of the penal system is incomplete. Police weakness and incompetence, and the system’s general lack of credibility, may increase the propensity to loot, but does not fully explain it. The motivation of the rioters also lies, at least in part, in social, moral and economic conditions. Here a clear line of argument traces the root cause to family breakdown and the lack of authority in schools. It is striking that one of the first people to be convicted, a 14 year-old girl, attended court on her own: her parents could not find the time to come. (The judge, rightly, was incensed).

Fatherless families are a modern phenomenon. They started with the breakdown of the black family in the 1970s, stoked by drugs, failing schools and misguided social interventions (such as the automatic provision of housing for young pregnant women). The curse of fatherlessness has now spread to the white (and to some Asian) communities too. Even when both parents are present, family life can be degraded by economic pressure, overcrowding, poor nutrition and simple ignorance. Only days before the riots broke out, the government published a well-meaning set of guidelines to good parenting, including the suggestion that parents should switch off the television for at least 20 minutes a day in order to read their child a story.

Schools have to fill the gap. But all too often they find that when they discipline their pupils, some parents are not ashamed that their child has misbehaved, but angry—with the school—for what they see as disrespectful behaviour. The “feminisation” of the education system plays a role too. Articulacy and empathy are prized in a way that teenage boys find bewildering. Male teachers are all but invisible in the first five years of state education.

Combined with the lack of adult constraints on young people’s behaviour is another factor: youth unemployment. This has particularly damaging effects on social cohesion. Those that feel that society has no use for them have little positive reason to want to obey its rules (if the fear factor has gone because of weak policing, then they have no reason at all). Britain’s sink-or-swim employment market does not score well here: continental European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Germany, with active labour market polices and well-structured schemes for apprenticeships and training have a better record. Filling the vacuum in many young people’s lives are gangs. This is a big change since the last round of rioting in Britain in the 1980s. Gangs offer a kind of substitute family for disorientated young people, with routines, hierarchy and rewards (many are involved in drug-distribution and other criminal rackets). Mr Bratton is keen to share his experience on American gang culture. It will be warmly received.

As Britain ponders the aftermath of the riots, all these arguments are in play. Some people want more money for the police, others more money for youth clubs. Some want rubber bullets and even live ammunition. Others want an end to police harassment of young people. Though the damage to property is around £200m, the much greater harm has been to Britain’s self-image. In quick succession illusions have been popping: Iraq and Afghanistan (and now Libya) have exposed the feebleness of our armed forces. The financial crisis has shown that the prosperity of the previous decade was a smoke-and-mirrors job based on the casino-like activities of the City of London. The scandal over politicians’ expenses shows that our rulers are greedy and cynical in their use of taxpayers’ money (no better morals than the looters, some say). The furore over phone-hacking shows that the media, and not only the tabloid press, is little short of a blackmail racket. Now the riots have punctured the idea that London is the greatest city in the world, a model of multi-cultural creativity, harmony and success.

So measuring the political fallout will be hard. Prizes will go to those who restore superficial calm (particularly in time for next year’s Olympics) and to those who deal with the deeper problems that underlie the riots. The big winner so far seems to be the prime minister. David Cameron came back from holiday promptly and sounded statesmanlike when he addressed the House of Commons. His big potential rival inside the Conservative Party, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, was slower to return from his holiday in Canada. His boyish, shambolic approach to life jarred a bit in the sombre mood of the clean-up. The Labour Party has done rather less well: its attempt to blame the riots on the “cuts” (which in truth have barely begun to bite) sounded cheap and opportunistic.

But the real truth is that riots are an inevitable part of urban life, in Britain and in other countries. Harlem in America, the May Day riots of West Berlin in the 1980s, the simmering violence in the French Banlieu, squatters in Copenhagen, violent strikes in France or Greece—few countries in the supposedly rich and peaceful Western half of Europe can claim that violent semi-criminal protest is totally unknown (the truth is that it is the ex-communist East which has a better record of civic peace and social responsibility than the supposedly more advanced West).

In short, riots happen, but life goes on. The riots of 1958 in Notting Hill, 1981 in Brixton, 1985 in Tottenham (when a policeman was beheaded) in Oldham in 2001 and in Birmingham in 2005 (to name but a few of the two dozen that occurred in the post-war era) were jarring and upsetting. But they did not change the world. This latest outbreak is no different. Britain is not as peaceful as it likes to think it is. But nor is it as violent and miserable as it seemed last week.


Edward Lucas is International Editor of The Economist, the London-based global newsweekly, and also oversees the paper’s political coverage of Central and Eastern Europe. He has been covering Eastern Europe since 1986, and was the Moscow bureau chief during 1998-2002, the Central and Eastern European correspondent. He has also been the correspondent for The Independent and the BBC. Lucas is in addition a regular contributor to The Daily Mail, where he covers Russia and CIS-related stories.

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