We are “all children of Thatcher'”

— British Foreign Secretary William Hague in an off-guard moment

Yesterday I noted that the most important thing to observe in writing about the “British Riots” was that there was no such thing — there is no single event going on in the UK, with a single meaning. What started as a protest against the police killing of a black man in Tottenham — with an incompetent police frame-up thrown in — became the opportunity for three or four intersecting waves of action to occur.

They were:

  1. Wider protests and property damage against racist policing (especially “stop-and-search” powers) in non-white areas of London,
  2. Atomist-anarchist property damage (and attacks on media personnel) as part of a strategy of basic disruption
  3. Property damage and looting by a “transitional” group — politically-defined anarchists and koukouloforoi (“hooded ones” in the Greek terminology) shading into opportunistic riotous youths
  4. Violent, sometimes organised, criminality — systematic looting for on-sale, mugging etc.
  5. Racist attacks in multiple directions — between blacks and British-Asians, and by white “vigilante” groups of blacks.

Clearly there are overlaps at the edges of each, and multiple purpose — in some cases to steal a pair of trainers or a plasma TV is an act with a political dimension, but the fact that these are separated processes can be seen by looking at earlier riots/insurrections — such as the Brixton ones of the early 1980s, or the Broadwater Farm (near Tottenham) battles of 1985, where looting and random criminality was marginal or absent.

Thus, not only is there a multiplicity of layers to what is occurring, but some of these work against each other — the organised criminals are preying on the weak while they also empty out chain stores, the looters blunt anti-racist protest by turning it into a free-for-all, and the white English Defence Leagues (and some black gangs, or groupuscules), are attempting to turn it into a racial conflict, when its roots are clearly in the relations between police and public.

When people are banding together to protect their streets against such fluid anomic destruction, you would be foolish in the extreme to construct the event as nothing other than meaningful resistance and get on its side, as some on the Left seem to be doing. But the far greater foolishness is with the Right, who have put the multiple events into one lump, and trotted out their tired old recitative of civilisational decline.

For the Right, the events are the fault of everything from soft policing, to the collapse of traditional moral authority, parents not being allowed to smack their children, the failure to teach proper history in schools, the writings of Michel Foucault, the personal conduct of Amy Winehouse, and so on and so on. Anything, apparently, but the actual events that kicked the whole thing off in the first place — a police killing of a black man who never fired a shot, in a country where poor communities are feeling the effect of deep cuts to social services and community institutions.

There is something not only wearying but wearied about the Right’s recitative — as if they barely believe it themselves, or are divided into whom to turn their hate on more — the people doing the mayhem, or the “political class” alleged to have betrayed the country through spineless failure to assert proper authority etc etc. To blame the latter — which they would dearly love to do — would be, in part, to give a social explanation for the events, and they hate that. But to sheet home individual blame, is to let the “surrender” culture off the hook, and they hate that more.

Some — such as Theodore Dalrymple and Andrew Bolt — come to a darker solution, and start muttering about an “underclass”, let off the leash by the permissive class, and threatening the class above — goodly workers and lower-middle class people — to be protected by a bit of social cleansing perhaps. The prize probably goes to Melanie Phillips who blames well, everything, absolutely everything, in a hilarious self-parodic recitative that stands as the right’s melt-down.

The short answer to the Right’s self-serving construction of these events would be to say that they are easily falsified by looking at where and when they don’t and didn’t happen. The first and obvious candidate is Scotland — these aren’t British riots, they’re English riots. Why? Because Scotland and Northern Ireland are separately governed for the purposes of domestic spending, and in both cases, the Tories’ cuts have been resisted. People still have a stake in society and riots when they occur have an older political form i.e. sectarianism.

Furthermore when you look to the places where “PC” parenting, policing blah blah has occurred — i.e. Scandinavia, Netherlands etc — you find not merely an absence of riots, but also an absence of the sort of anomie that fuels Britain. Why? Because they’re less unequal places. People still feel they’ve got a stake in their own lives.

In England, people feel like they’ve got a stake through their heart. They didn’t for a while under Labour, as Gordon Brown began to wheel out some sort of social investment state — now that’s been wound up, there is simply a renewed sense of radical isolation.

The form the riots are taking may well be dictated by the nature of postmodern society — the content is still dictated by politics. The Right’s half-arsed theorising on this wont disguise the truth — these are Thatcher’s children, and this is Thatcher’s England, still and again, and in its third decade.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey