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broken society. David Cameron. Iain Duncan Smith. removing benefits from rioters. moral disintegration. MPs expenses., politics, riots

If society is broken, who broke it?

  If society is broken, who exactly broke it?  If there is a moral vacuum in society who sucked the air out of it?  If people are out for themselves, who has set the bench-mark of selfishness?   Iain Duncan Smith says on Today that “we all need to put our house in order”.  But who exactly is fixing the roof?  MPs made huge sums of money out of abusing abusing their expenses, and the vast majority got away with it.  The bankers who wrecked the economy out of greed and short termism, have been rewarded with huge sums of public money.  The sections of the press that crow loudest about the need for law and order and respect for authority turn out to have been engaging in illegality on an industrial scale.  If it is time to “make life hell” for the hoodies, as the government is promising,  when is fire and brimstone going to land on the City of London, the Houses of Parliament,   the offices of Wapping?

   Remove benefits from young rioters, say petitioners.  But when are the politicians going to give back the tens of thousands in capital gains they made out of flipping second homes?  What about removing the bonuses bankers have been awarding themselves without any moral or financial justification?  Why is it that the only person who has been punished in the News International phone hacking affair been the comedian who threw a pie in the face of Rupert Murdoch?  

  These aren’t mere debating points.  Society breaks from the top down.  You cannot punish those below while those at the top are exonerated.   You cannot lecture people on their responsibilities when those at the top show none at all.    

If the response to these disturbances is purely to crack down on the dispossessed, single mothers, benefit claimants then there will only be more violence. Governments govern only by consent of the governed.  Or else we have Leviathan.

    Mindless violence is never totally mindless.  Many of the rioters do have a moral universe, do have a sense of justice, and feel that middle class society has lost it.  Look at the unemployment rates in the constituencies that were set ablaze.  Almost half of young black men in some inner city boroughs are unemployed.  They are locked out of the consumer society which taunts them from billboards and MTV.  The roots of this problem are blindingly obvious.  

 And no – that doesn’t make it right to riot.      

Karl Marx called them the “lumpenproletariat”; Franz Fanon called them “the Wretched of the Earth”; conservative sociologists call them the “underclass”; the press call them “feral youth”. Last week they took on society on the streets of English cities – and it’s not yet entirely clear who won. The first round went to feral youth and we are still waiting for the replay.

The police were the first casualties – humiliated by gangs of mostly young people who made the forces of law and order turn and flee. How long will it take the mighty Metropolitan Police, to live down that You Tube video from Woolwich where officers start to move against the hoods, hesitate, and then back away allowing a jeering swarm to take over the street. It was like one of those Zombie movies. Except that the undead are rather easier to deal with than the “kidz”.

Of course, they’ve always been there – the opportunist thugs and petty larcenists, drug addicts and psychopaths – who come out onto the streets when law and order breaks down. We’ve seen their familiar faces looking out at us from the newspapers. They come from all social backgrounds and none. Many are denizens of the sink estates – the so-called “shameless” products of welfare dependency. But there has been a sprinkling of graduates, classroom assistants and even some offspring of the well-to-do. The euphoria of violence is what unites them – the intoxication of destruction. It’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – the kind that Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols yearned for before he became a b-list celebrity doing grocery ads. Here it was, finally, thirty five years on from the dawn of punk. “Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it; I wanna destroy the passers by”. Never Mind the Bollocks could have been the rioters’ manifesto. That and Pink Floyd “We don’t need no education…”

But the scale of the anarchy is what has shocked everyone – Left and Right, Tory and Conservative, laissez faire liberals and moral reactionaries. It started with a peaceful protest in Tottenham over the shooting by police of a suspected gangster Mark Duggan. Within 48 yours, flash mobs of arsonists and thieves had broken out like boils all across the face of urban England. Shops and houses were set ablaze, including the Sony distribution centre in Enfield which housed 3 million CDs, including not a few by the gangsta rappers many of “da yoot” listen to on their ipods while they’re trashing Asian stores. Liam Gallagher, the Oasis hell-raiser, renowned for his one-finger attitude to authority, woke up to find his shop in Manchester down by quarter of a million in merchandise. But don’t look back in anger? Looters formed orderly queues outside Debenhams in Clapham while those inside tried stolen clothes on for size. This was petty thieving on an industrial scale.

Five people have died so far, and there have been well over a 1200 arrests and around £100m in lost property. Given the arson and random violence it’s a minor miracle that there weren’t more casualties. 16,000 police took to the streets of London on Tuesday and the courts have been working round the clock to punish offenders, including one teenager who got six months for stealing a bottle of water. This was the legal “fight back”, promised by David Cameron. But some have taken the law into their own hands. The week ended with images vigilante groups of sword-carrying Sikhs standing guard outside shops in Birmingham. Oh – and the rain, which some said was the real reason why the ‘feral youth’ left the streets and returned home to play Grand Theft Auto on their stolen X~ boxes.

There was no side to take here – though opportunist commentators and politicians sought to grind their axes. There was a brainless spat on BBC’s Newsnight between Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, and the Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove, over the role of “the cuts”. But for once the nation was largely united, if only in shocked disbelief. On the streets, the offices, in universities and businesses, in Holyrood and Westminster everyone was saying the same thing: where are the police? Why are they letting this happen? Why didn’t they break a few heads? Perhaps next time they will – this has been a watershed event for the police, and has ended the era of ‘policing by consent’. Gene Hunt of Life on Mars may be returning to a street near you.

But what of the causes? Well, the first thing to say is that it was all very different from the racial riots of the 1980s. I vividly recall the original Tottenham riots in 1985 because I was working at the time as a current affairs producer the BBC’s cerebral “World Tonight” programme, which decamped for a time to the epicentre of the troubles: Broadwater Farm Estate – a 1960s, le Corbusier-inspired monument to concrete brutalism, It was like visiting the front line in a war zone. People expressed a righteous anger at police behaviour, about racism and discrimination, poor housing and poor health. Community workers convened angry meetings. The tenants association was split on racial lines.

A protest at the death of a local resident, Cynthia Jarrett, by heart attack during a police search, turned into a riot ,and PC Keith Blakelock was murdered by machete. Bernie Grant, a council leader who went on to become one of Britain’s first black MPs, was reported as saying that the police had got “a bloody good hiding”. There was none of that triumphalism this time, and no discernible political dimension to the 2011 riots. Black leaders were just as appalled by the nihilism. Diane Abbott the radical MP for Hackney even suggested a curfew in her constituency. Paul now Lord Boateng, who cried “today Brent South; tomorrow Soweto!” when he was elected MP in 1987, last week condemned the futility of the riots and praised the police.

It is a cruel irony that it was in Tottenham that last week’s riots began. I passed by Broadwater Farm estate a couple of years ago and found it changed beyond recognition. The buildings have been refurbished and the estate had become a highly desirable place to live, not least because it has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. In 2005, not a single robbery or outdoor assault was recorded here and there was only one burglary, according to Harningey Council. In the third quarter of 1985 alone there were 875 burglaries, 50 robberies and 50 assaults. Broadwater is a model of urban regeneration, living proof that mixed communities can survive and thrive. 70% of residents are from an ethnic background and there are 29 languages spoken on the estate.

The Metropolitan Police have changed almost much as Broadwater Farm. A lot more of them are black for a start – 3,000; there were only 180 black officers in 1985. The Scarman Report into the Brixton and Toxteth riots of the early 1980s, began a 30 year process of reform which transformed relations between the Met and the ethnic groups in the capital. Gone are the “sus” laws, stop-and-search, and the Special Patrol Group, notorious for its harassment of any young man with a black face. No – we may want tougher policing but we should not, must not go back to the days when the Met was an occupying force.

So if we can’t blame the estates, and we can’t blame the police, who can we blame? Multiculturalism? Hardly, since the Asian community seems to have been standing firm against the rioters, many of whom were white, as we can see from the pictures of those who ended up in court. The international press, which gave extensive coverage to the violence, blamed inequality, poor schools, immigration and the break up of the family. CNN asked: “How long until we see this in the U.S.?”, which seemed grimly ironic given the history of urban violence there. 

 The riots gave dictators an opportunity to have a go at British hypocrisy. Robert Mugabe called on David Cameron to “put out your own fires” and stop interfering in other countries. The Libyan foreign ministry issued a cheeky communique saying that “David Cameron must go” and that the “international community [should not] stand with arms folded in the face of this gross aggression against the rights of the British people”. The Chinese dictators leapt on David Cameron’s comments about controlling social media sites to justify its own internet censorship. “Now they are tasting the bitter fruit of their complacency”, said one commentators in the China People’s Daily.  But of course, this was emphatically not a revolt against an oppressive tyranny. This was no “London Spring” but an outbreak of mass criminal behaviour – a threat to freedom and democracy rather than a defence of it. Bloggers from Egypt’s Tahrir square rightly condemned the British rioters for lacking any cause for their action.  

 The reason socialists have been so contemptuous of revolts by the “lumpenproletariat” in the past is because they are essentially ragged individualists, uninterested in and unconnected to the rest of society. Karl Marx dismissed the “beggars, pimps, pick-pockets” because they were incapable of developing class s consciousness through workplace organisation and were therefore incapable of contributing to the creation of communism. Unfortunately, the socially-conscious working man that Marx ennobled in the Communist Manifesto, failed to deliver. Capitalism has changed, and tries to do without workers – which has led to the proliferation of the underclass..

Perhaps not since the criminal mobs of the 1820s have the wretched of the earth come so close to challenging the very foundation of modern middle class society. They didn’t have BlackBerries of course in the 19th Century, but the London ruffians and footpads had equally effective means of communications through an underground criminal network using a complex language of double meanings and code, some of which evolved into Cockney rhyming slang. They were highly effective in out maneovering the forces of law and order. The moral panic over criminality and gin-soaked lawlessness led directly to the creation of the first police force – the “Peelers”, named after the Prime Minister, Robert Peel. the kind of repressive social controls that defined the Victorian era. Perhaps that is going to happen again, now that the PM has launched the fight-back.

However, David Cameron also said he intended to learn from, among other law enforcement agencies, Strathclyde Police in how to combat gang violence. It came as some surprise to learn that the West of Scotland, with its problems of drunkenness, sectarianism and knife crime, is apparently regarded as a policing success story. Gang violence has been reduced by 50% among gang members who sign up to the programme run by the Violence Reduction Unit. Since this involves a lot of understanding, counselling and even diversions like football and trips, this may not the kind of initiative that finds favour with the press. However, the fact that Cameron is taking this seriously is encouraging. He may not still be hugging hoodies, but at least he is still trying to understand what makes them tick. 

 Scotland of course was left unmarked by rioting, but no one – not even Alex Salmond – is daring to declare that we are immune to the disease, even though we have what the FM called “a different society”.  Indeed, I’d have to say that the politicians responded rather well to the crisis, refusing to panic or indulge in verbal violence. Ed Miliband, even accepted Labour’s share of the blame for the “me first” culture. A lot of people were talking good sense last week: the saintly Tariq Jahan, whose refusal to speak the language of retribution after the murder of his son Haroon, left the rest of us lost for words. The Malaysian student, Ashraf Rossli, left on the pavement with a broken jaw and robbed by rioters posing as samaritans, said he bore no ill-feelings towards his attackers. And of course, there was the Heroine of Hackney, grandmother Pauline Pearce, who confronted the looters, shouting “Get real, black people. Get Real”

And not everyone was exclusively blaming the rioters. “Certainly, the so-called feral youth seem oblivious to decency and morality.” argued one press commentator.”But so too are the venal rich and powerful – too many of our bankers, footballers, wealthy businessmen and politicians…The rioters have this defence: they are just following an example set by senior and respected figures in society”. And no ,that didn’t come from Socialist Worker but from Peter Oborne in the Tory Daily Telegraph. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

But last week’s events left me with a deeply troubling thought: policing alone cannot stop this kind of rioting, and nor can politicians. London cannot keep 16,000 police on the streets for more than a few days. Plastic bullets and water cannon are of limited use when mobs disappear as fast as they emerge. The courts have ground to a halt and the prisons are already overflowing. Calling for longer harsher sentences is futile because so many of the offenders don’t seem to care about being caught. They have nothing to lose. If as seems all too likely, the economy is going to fall into a double dip or a depression, could this be the shape of urban life to come?

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


8 thoughts on “If society is broken, who broke it?

  1. The rot set in following the election of PM Magaret Thatcher in '79. She raised VAT to a crippling 22.5% – The impact on the industrial base of the UK was immediate and catastrophic- Business failures soared and the jobs that relied on them disappeared in their thousands.The social consequences of this act of political vandalism remain with us to this day. And are set to become more acute as England is forced to downsize with little hope of reversing the decline even in the medium term.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 16, 2011, 3:33 pm
  2. It's like a different race descended on Britain and tore the place up, no-one is getting past the shock to get close to explaining just what happened and why. Maybe all the print word is doing and the rest of the commentariat are doing is trying to make themselves feel better about this, by expressing self-righteous indignation and opprobrium. It really isn't helping, and shows how futile commentary pages really are. Neil

    Posted by Anonymous | August 17, 2011, 7:25 pm
  3. "policing alone cannot stop this kind of rioting, and nor can politicians."If you really believe that then the ba' is truly on the slates. The sentence needs re-phrased to make sense. "policing can't stop this kind of rioting, and politicians won't". Politicians could stop it if they wanted to construct a different kind of society, one where (for example) they and their wealthy sponsors did not trouser gazillions of taxpayers' pounds while their constituents struggled for a square meal. I don't see that happening, so on with the riots.BTW, I wonder why we are implying relative virtue in the Scots because they did not riot? Are we maybe a wee bit too passive? Recall: we rolled over for the poll tax – oh, a few poite murmurs of complaint – but it was withdrawn when the English rioted in the streets.

    Posted by Vronsky | August 18, 2011, 7:25 pm
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    Posted by Anonymous | August 19, 2011, 10:02 am
  5. 'The poor have no lawyers' The title of a book, written by Andy Wightman on how the landowners in Scotland got their hands on the millions of acres of land that were once held in common. What was done then through the illegal expropriation of acres of common land is being repeated by today's self-serving financiers, politicians and lawyers. Only this time it is our money that is being expropriated.In the DVD 'Inside story', when asked 'has fraud been commited?' the answer was 'Yes', But it seems our leaders are not too keen to go after the culprits.' Why?For all the reasons you touch on England ,if not brokens is teetering on the brink.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 22, 2011, 4:43 pm
  6. First class article. I can't think of anything to add to it…

    Posted by tris | August 24, 2011, 9:04 pm
  7. From your own words Iain; it seems to me that there is a thread of truth in the notion that rioting gets results. You said so yourself, just look at Broadwater Farm.

    Posted by Anonymous | August 29, 2011, 10:14 am
  8. Great article. But as always in society divide and conquer.

    Posted by Anonymous | March 13, 2012, 9:36 pm

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