Saturday, August 13, 2011

Some thoughts on the recent disturbances

Nick Clegg predicted these riots would happen under a minority Tory Government during last year’s election campaign, of course. But going back to 2006 even David Cameron appeared to suggest there was a social context to youth crime, in his “hug a hoodie” phase. But now the riots for him are criminality, “pure and simple”, and he resists calls for public enquiries even as he outlines a programme of hysterical populist authoritarianism going forward. So far so depressing.

A pinko liberal like me will point to the fact that the riots overwhelmingly happened in poorer areas and the rioters tended to be unemployed, and argue this must mean social deprivation and blighted prospects must be relevant to understanding the causes of these disturbances. However, it will be pointed out (correctly) that the vast majority of poor people do not riot and steal, whatever the provocation.

It is true criminality exists at all levels of society. Criminals selfishly take to enrich themselves at others’ expense, if they calculate they will get away with it. Most violent crime happens at lower levels, but as one rises in the social pecking order there are greater opportunities for non-violent crime, and for immoral acts which just tidily skirt the edges of the law. For instance, I feel there is an exact moral equivalence between MP’s looting public funds for plasma TVs on their expenses and Tottenham rioters looting Curry’s.

Peter Oborne brilliantly expands on this point:

“The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”

For thirty years and more we have been told that “greed is good” (personal greed being the driver of neo-liberal economics) and we have witnessed decades of consumerist excess. We are what we consume. So now we have “shopping with violence” by those excluded from the system and a “grab what you can while you can” attitude in our politicians, businessmen and bankers.

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, in plain sight, debauched the integrity of our political classes from Thatcher in the 80’s (who broke the rules and allowed News International to take control of The Times and Sunday Times) to just this year, when until the scandal broke the Cameron government gave every indication of breaking every sinew in order to give Murdoch the full ownership of BSkyB without legal examination.

While this trail of political corruption was there for everyone to see - most lefties have been yammering on about it for years - what shocked me was they way in which the Metropolitan Police were corrupted by News International too.

So now Britain has a superstructure of morally bankrupt politicians, police, media and bankers presiding over a rioting underclass. We truly are in dire straits.

But it seems to me the police have been corrupted from another direction too. Before she launched into her vast social engineering programme, Thatcher gave the police massive pay increases, and given the amount of social unrest during the 80s this was clearly an astute Machiavellian ploy. However, Cameron’s crew were more naively neo-liberal than the blessed Margaret and decided the police were a social expense they wanted to cut (by 20%). The strangely tentative police reaction to the start of the rioting (rioters in Clapham were left alone for hours, for example, despite prior knowledge of the intended attacks) suggests a possible intention on their part to put some pressure on the Government over the cuts; certainly the PR war between police and government in the last few days appears to support this interpretation too.

Which is another cause for alarm. Under Blair we saw an huge increase in the political import of the police - and indeed political policing. Now it could be argued the police are holding the government to ransom. I’m not a fan of Cameron at all but it is completely outrageous that the (unelected) police [service] should feel empowered to publicly argue with the elected representatives of State. I’m reading a book about the downfall of the Roman empire at the moment and it struck me we are not a million miles away from the Praetorian Guard deposing the Emperor because their pay rise wasn’t big enough.

Riots have a long history in Britain, and our beloved tv period dramas have occluded the extent of rioting in the vastly unequal Victorian and Edwardian eras. The 1886 Riot (Damages) Act allows for victims to claim compensation from the police if they were insufficiently protected. It is interesting that lawmakers of the time came up with this idea. They were clearly responding to a perceived need.

Back in those days, police and rioters were probably evenly matched in terms of technology. The 20th Century saw the police attain total dominance in technology, organization, tactics and training over potential rioters, culminating in the controversial kettling tactics of the last couple of decades.

However, we should remember the Black bloc anarchists who infiltrated the Anti-Cuts March back in March this year successfully trumped the police kettling tactics. The black bloc people ran amock in small groups throughout the city, popping up all over to cause havoc, then melting away only to reappear elsewhere. No black blocs were arrested, despite them being the major perpetrators of political violence that day. Instead, the police chose to arrest around 300 entirely peaceful UK Uncut protestors staging a sit-in in Fortnum & Masons (highlighting Fortnum’s non-payment of UK tax). These arrests were massive headline news at the time. Subsequently, all charges against everyone arrested there were dropped.

Clearly, those arrests formed a PR mask for police failure, and the current riots demonstrate anarchist black bloc tactics have by osmosis been absorbed by criminal elements intent on looting, with similar expectations of success. The only successful police response to this was an eventual massive increase in manpower on the streets - 16,000 on the streets of London this week, more than ever in history and three times more than usual. This is not sustainable long-term and police will be thinking of new tactics to contain rioters.

But until new, successful and cost-effective tactics are developed, and underlying social injustices are addressed, I expect to see more events of this kind. The initial riots were copied very quickly and very widely. Until then we will have to suffer populism of the “ban twitter and facebook” kind, even though it could be argued tv news coverage poured more petrol on the flames than social media ever did.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Brilliant summing up Ed.

A couple of points ...

"it could be argued tv news coverage poured more petrol on the flames than social media ever did".

It most certainly could!

"I expect to see more events of this kind".

On that point Ed, I so hope that you are wrong.