Tuesday night, no fewer than 16,000 police officers, many of them drafted from forces across the United Kingdom, will patrol the streets of London as Scotland Yard tries to prevent a fourth successive night of the rioting that has convulsed the capital, shocked Britain, and made headlines around the world.Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has scampered back from his Italian holiday and Parliament has been recalled to debate the riots, and the issues arising from them, on Thursday. Already, and before the violence has even subsided, the search for reasons and answers has begun. Alas, this thirst for firm conclusions is likely to be disappointed.
The proximate cause of the violence was the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old from the notorious Broadwater Farm estate in North London. His family promptly disowned the violence, making it clear that it had no serious connection with Duggan’s death.
Nevertheless, within hours riots that began in Tottenham had spawned copycat violence and criminality in other London neighborhoods and then, later, in other cities around England.
Indeed, these last few days in Britain have been pungently suggestive of a London-based sequel to Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. As in 1980s New York City, London is polarised by wealth and status; then as now the inequalities are stark. And as in Wolfe’s fiction, so in London life: there are always goons and hucksters ready to capitalise on any tragedy, twisting it to serve their own ends.
Not that the American inspiration for some of these disturbances ends there. We have been treated to the absurd spectacle of teenage looters referring to the police as “the Feds” as though London was Baltimore and the local youths starring in a North London remake of The Wire.
The inexcusable never lacks for excuses and, sure enough, the riots have been defended by people who should, but clearly don’t, know any better. Left-wing Labour M.P. John McDonnell sank to fresh depths of fatuousness when he tweeted that London was merely “reaping what has been sown over 3 decades of creating grotesquely unequal society with alienated young copying ethos of looting bankers.” Thus the riots were, in some curious fashion, Margaret Thatcher’s fault and never mind logic or, for that matter, the fact that she was forced from office before many of today’s thugs were even born.
Not that McDonnell was the only commentator seeking to pin blame on anyone other than the rioters themselves. Presenters on the BBC fretted about what the “protesters”—a loaded, interesting word to use—hoped to achieve and the extent, if any, to which a heartless Conservative-led government could be blamed for provoking such an outburst of nihilistic rage. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political aisle, right-wing pundits demanded harsher policing while some even called (with more enthusiasm than was seemly) for the Army to take control of London’s burning streets.
In other words, the riots produced the typical but nonetheless unedifying spectacle of partisans bickering to see how the violence might be exploited to confirm one set of preexisting prejudices or the other.
If anything was clear it is that this kind of wanton criminality, spreading like wildfire, is not “about” anything or a “response” to any aspect of government policy. Nor does it have any “meaning.” Beyond the obvious fact that young males enjoy violence and when given licence or encouragement to smash things will do so enthusiastically, there is no great “lesson” to be drawn from the riots. Nor need we spend much time agonizing over teenage “alienation” as though this was some hitherto mysterious, unknown phenomenon.
If the riots have any comparable antecedent, it’s the violence that took over French towns and cities in the fall of 2005. Excitable commentators, especially but not exclusively on the conservative side of the spectrum, immediately proclaimed that violence was the start of a “French intifada” and a leading indicator of the looming Islamization of France. It was, of course, no such thing, being instead merely a reminder of what happens when you hand bored teenagers and hoodlums cans of gasoline and invite them to do their worst.
Similarly, the riots in Tottenham—the scene, like Liverpool and Birmingham, of race riots in the 1980s—and other parts of London are neither evidence of the failure of London’s multicultural identity nor the consequence of David Cameron’s appreciation that the coming years must, thanks to past excesses, be leaner times than we have been accustomed to enjoying. In fact, all observers agree that the racial tensions that dominated life in many of Britain’s inner cities in the 1980s are largely absent today and that London’s undoubted vibrancy owes much to its status as truly global city, open to the world.
Still, the coincidence of these riots occurring at the same time as the euro zone faces its own apocalypse makes it tempting to tie the events together and spin a narrative of Western decline as the world’s balance of power—in both political and economic terms—shifts to the East.
Nevertheless, that narrative is perhaps too suspiciously convenient. So too is the fact that the violence erupted while Britain’s political leaders were enjoying their holidays in Tuscany and Provence. Again, the symbolism of a supposedly out-of-touch political elite partying while their capital burned was neat, sweeping, simplistic, and wrong.
The Metropolitan Police, whatever their mistakes, could have responded to the initial trouble with greater vigor. That failure may have encouraged others to take to the streets. Why let their peers have all the fun? But for all the bragging about targeting the rich or expressing dissatisfaction with public spending and welfare cuts the fact remains that it has been poor neighborhoods, not Mayfair or Chelsea, that have burned. (Nor, frankly, are many of those rioting likely to be impacted by the government’s decision to allow universities to increase tuition fees.)
Cameron and his government, nevertheless, will find themselves pressured to “do something” to show they are back in command of the situation. On this all agree even if, at first blush, it is not obvious what that something should or even usefully could be.
Notwithstanding, Middle England looks upon these burning streets and is appalled. The rioters and those who feel some instinctive sympathy for them or treat their trumped-up complaints seriously will be disappointed if they think Cameron’s government will take a hit from all this. On the contrary. How can the prime minister be expected to address the causes of disorder when this kind of chaos has no sensible cause? Listening to the youth is all very well and good, but sometimes it turns out they have nothing to say that bears listening to. This is one of those occasions.