The London Riots: A time for ‘big society’? – 9 August 2011

The spasm of violence notionally begun with a peaceful protest about a young man who was shot by the police under circumstances still  under investigation have shocked the ordinary, law abiding British public. They have also laid bare some awkward questions at a time in our contemporary history where there are already too many awkward questions banging about. The spiralling economic crisis and fracture in trust with our political and media elites are enough to be going on with frankly. 

The map of the riots circulated on twitter make for shocking viewing. The spread of the violence within London (broadly within the whole of the M25 area) and then out towards Bristol (in the west) and Birmingham (in the west midlands) are totally disconnected from that initial protest about the death of one individual in contested circumstances.

I have been interested in the various hypotheses published for why this violence has occurred.

* There are those who believe that the systemic (and largely racial) inequality in Britain – with attendant economic consequences – has stored this problem for the last twenty years, and the Saturday protest, then riot, in Tottenham provided some kind of accelerant spark.

* There are those who believe that an ‘underclass’ (to use the Telegraph’s language) has essentially run out of control in London and this is merely the latest manifestation of it.

* There are those who believe that the austerity measures implemented by the coalition government (and remember they haven’t even begun to be fully felt yet) have caused such tension in society that violence has sprung up, as it has in Greece and Spain, in response to it.

Then there is the response of one of my former colleagues who said: “The subjective and objective, agentic and structural, sides are not incompatible, either. No-one would do anything if they didn’t gain some form of engagement from it. The structural question is what are the conditions that mean *this particular* form of enjoyable ‘empowerment’, involving, as it does, confrontation with the police, looting of expensive consumer goods, etc, seem appropriate?” which is exactly why the social sciences are under attack in the UK… and why as a discipline we need to collectively pull our heads out of our bottoms and be more relevant to the world we inhabit… But that’s an aside and a hobbyhorse…

For what it’s worth, some thoughts:

The comparison with Greece and Spain is false. The protesters in these countries are middle class or youth aspiring to leading a middle class life who feel that their future has been robbed from them. The protests in London by trade unions etc, fit the same mould, but largely without the violence. What we see in London is more opportunistic criminality than political movement. And whilst that might sound like I am downplaying its significance in the choice of those words, I’m not. There are three dangers inherent in these riots: 1) the risk to society and property from the actions themselves, 2) that a loss of confidence in the police’s ability to quell the violence will drive vigilante forces out into the street (much as happened in Stoke Newington last night), which may spill over into further inter-ethnic violence, and 3) that government initiatives fail or are seen to fail which would have a very serious implication for the trust of the public in our essential democratic institutions (for example, a curfew that cannot be enforced would make the government look impotent, potentially very serious for British society as it would encourage others to follow suit making the situation far worse).

A curfew is a good idea. Just not one enforced by government.

Where are the parents? Until I left home for university my parents retained the parental right to ask where I was and what I was doing. I didn’t think it was unreasonable then, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable now. I was never encouraged or allowed to go and ‘hang out’ at a park with others drinking or whatever if it had no purpose. Sporting clubs and activities were fine, as were other kinds of socialising with a point. Pointless hanging out in a gaggle wasn’t. That has of course led me to be a tank-top wearing academic.. so not all good, but the diametric opposite parenting, which doesn’t know where their children are, or what they’re doing, and which thinks that education is not the best engineer of social transformation leads to a situation where the streets are ruled by knife carrying lawless types for whom quite serious levels of violence are a way of life. It is totally unacceptable for Britain to continue to let this happen. The parents of Britain need to get a grip. Every parent of a teenage child in London, Birmingham and other major cities needs to ‘ground’ their child tonight, and remove their mobile phone from them. Enough of the bull-shit that children are free to be adults from the age of 12, they’re children. I reckon by 20 I knew just about enough to live and function on my own without the supportive environment of parents or university friends. It’s abject bollocks to think that a 12 year old knows anywhere near enough about the world to be out making serious choices. Neurological research tells us that the part of the brain that processes risk is not fully formed until 19. Up to 19 that part of the brain functions to accept risk too readily. What kind of parent allows their child to roam a dangerous environment, egged on by peer group pressure, with a brain that is designed to take risks? So, the big society curfew should spring up in the community and be policed by the community.

People have moaned about the interception of the blackberry messaging service. Blackberry should turn it off in the UK for the short-term. Infringement of civil liberties to prevent widespread lawlessness is one of the cornerstones of policing and security practice. That’s why we have democratic controls: to prevent the abuse of the infringements for the wider good of society.

On the plus side, it has been heartening to see the response of the communities affected by the rioting. The hashtag to clear up the riot mess has been the top trending message on British twitter this morning, and myriad community spokespeople have been on the broadcast media disassociating themselves from the riot and pledging to assist in clearing it up. As a society, Britain does not need to go back to the divisive racial politics of the 60s, 70s and early 1980s and the advances made in police-community relations has been a stand-out positive of the last twenty five years. These riots (and events, events) do have the potential to unwind these gains. These problems have, whether we like it or not, come from without our society, and at the end of the day they need to be solved within those communities too. Because of the age-demographic of the participants it has to start, tonight, with the parents and guardians of these children (as they are mostly children). But longer term it has to be a job for parents, grandparents, youth-workers, social leaders and then local and national government.

Perhaps Mr Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative, has just found its zeitgeist.

Let’s hope that tonight peace reigns over the UK.

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