The fires are out and the smashed shops are boarded up, but the political and intellectual melee over the meaning of England’s riots continues to rage.  The bewilderment of last week has been replaced by water-cooler certainties.  On the buses and in the offices, everyone’s got a theory.

As has been widely observed, the fundamental split is broadly between whether you see culture or economics as the principal driver of the riots: the right take the former view; on the left it is the latter.

Yet despite the difference of opinions on the riots across the political spectrum, as Guy Rundle noted in Crikey earlier this week, there is also some convergence.  Overwhelmingly, politicians and pundits are concentrating on social explanations; a view that the origins of the riots lies in institutional failure, rather than mere individual turpitude.  So for example, Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that “[r]esponsibility for crime always lies with the criminal” but only in the context of also saying that “crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it”.  Right and left disagree on which context is the most significant, but to the extent that there is some degree of consensus that “society is to blame”, the national conversation is taking place on the intellectual terrain of the left.

Various structural forces also favour the left’s position.  We are talking intuitive likelihoods and broad comparative evidence here.  For example, surely nobody could soberly argue that widening inequality — as Britain continues to face — doesn’t make riots more likely?  Neither is it plausible to argue that a neo-liberal austerity agenda does not increase the chances of civil unrest, or that in a country with the worst childhood well-being in the developed world, it is not more probable that those same youths will at some stage vent their anger and frustration.

It also seems hard to seriously contend that the absence of stable and settled work and working conditions — a key absence in many people’s lives in Britain’s post-Thatcher post-industrial globalised economy — does not add to the pre-conditions for urban strife.  In that sense, the riots are an expression of the central paradox that disturbs the right’s Utopian fantasies of the good society, namely that unrestrained “rational” self-maximising behaviour destroys the very institutions that conservatives usually claim to revere.

Given the appalling events of last week, there is justifiably little public sympathy for the rioters, but the context for the immediate disapprobation is a broader cultural context of increased hostility and lack of compassion to those who are less well off in British society over the past decade or so, a significant attitudinal shift documented in last year’s 26th British Social Attitudes survey.  At the judicial coal face, these attitudes are being manifested in some severe custodial sentences being handed out for what would normally be regarded as very minor offences (in one case six months in prison for stealing £3.50 worth of water).  Outside the courts, notions of citizen self-help integral to Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” have taken on a mutated form in acts of vigilantism, including arson aimed at the house of one riot suspect whose name and address the Manchester police had published on the internet.

This analytical environment creates political pitfalls for the UK government.  Most obviously, having pledged to slash the police budget as a key austerity measure, it would be very difficult for Cameron’s crew to now embark on that particular policy U-turn.  Yet Cameron has made the pursuit of “zero tolerance” policing a centre-piece of his riot response, an approach that is necessarily resources-intensive and expensive.  So the government is left defending the unlikely position of asserting it can do more with less, accompanied by the usual weasel claims about efficiency and privatisation, as in this unconvincing effort from Home Secretary Therese May.

Nevertheless, if the former PR man can appear just plausible enough — avoiding not only the contradictions of the police budget, and the various hypocrisies of his own past life as a vandal, his infamous offering of a “second chance” to disgraced former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and his more lenient inclinations towards the elites who looted the global financial system — then it may be that there is electoral advantage to be had and ideological projects to be advanced on the right of politics.  The riots could yet prove to be Cameron’s Falklands or (thinking here of Bush not Blair) his 9/11.  According to the Prime Minister “nothing should be off the table” and “every contingency is being looked at”; he has speculated about bringing in the army, shutting down social media and spoken dismissively about “phoney human rights concerns”.  This “fightback”, Cameron pledged “will not stop until this mindless violence and thuggery is defeated and law and order is fully restored”.  The prospect of a domestic war without end on the streets of Britain seems all too possible.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey