Weekly Column, 19 August 2011

By Praful Bidwai

England’s worst rioting in decades has ended, but not without leaving London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and other cities scarred and large numbers of people shellshocked at the intensity of the violent confrontation between the police and angry youth. The rioting, in particular, the looting of supermarkets and shops, has provoked angry condemnations.

Prime Minister David Cameron called the rioters “sick” and plain “criminals”—a description similar to the term “scum” used by President Nicolas Sarkozy to describe the mainly North African-origin youth who indulged in spontaneous violent protests in Paris in 2007. Mr Cameron ordered draconian police action close to what the Americans call “zero tolerance”. He said he would fully back “whatever tactics” the police employ and didn’t want to hear about “phoney human rights concerns” regarding surveillance through CCTV cameras, of which London alone has two million.

Such responses, and the harsh retribution, as distinct from justice, being delivered to the suspected rioters, including evictions from subsidised housing, miss the point about what caused the violence in the first place. So do the tough police methods which have led to thousands of arrests. At the root of the trouble are several pathologies that afflict British society and politics, including the state’s growing credibility crisis.

The violence began with the killing of Mark Duggan, a young man in Tottenham in north London, an impoverished area with a mixed ethnic composition. Contrary to the early police account that Duggan opened fire on them, ballistics tests confirm that no shots were fired from inside the taxi he was in. Angry protests ensued after a picket was held at a police station by Duggan’s family and 300 others and no policeman came out to talk to them.

Soon, the protesters, convinced that Duggan was killed because he was a Black Caribbean, burned down and vandalised shops. A looting spree began, led by young people. Another eruption took place in Hackney in northeast London, in which rioters torched vehicles, lobbed petrol bombs at the police, and attacked shops.

Unchecked by a police force which has become rudderless after the recent resignation of senior officers following the voicemail-hacking scandal, the violence spread to other communities in London and other cities.

There is a context to such protests, which was clearly revealed during past investigations into riots, such as the 1981 violence in Brixton in south London. The Scarman inquiry into this was a scathing indictment of the institutional racial prejudice prevalent among state functionaries. It said the violence was “essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police.” Part of the context is also high rates of unemployment, great income inequality, and lack of social opportunity suffered by poor ethnic-minority groups.

For instance, Haringey, the borough which includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate that’s double the national level. For poor ethnic-minority groups, says a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report, “gateways to opportunity appear permanently closed, no matter how hard they try, while others seem to have been issued with an ‘access all areas’ pass at birth”. Two-fifths of Blacks and South Asians live in low-income households, which earn 60 percent or less than the median British income.

Mr Cameron seems oblivious of this, and even more inexcusably, of the effect his government’s cruel social spending cuts have had on welfare, community services, healthcare and education. The spending cuts have all but destroyed the youth clubs which used to keep the young usefully occupied, helped them meet others of their age and do something creative. Gone is the sense of community and belonging that these centres created.

Being poor is bad enough. Being poor and isolated to the point of desolation is far worse. That’s the situation of at least one-third of British youth, who have no future. Deprivation of educational opportunities, aggravated by huge recent hikes in university fees, has made things worse in Britain. There are middle class jobs in the West only for those with a high level of education, with proficiency in Information Technology. The skilled manual worker is no longer in demand.

When young people are given sermons about being virtuous, hard-working and devoted to “workfare”, as distinct from welfare, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, they are left unconvinced. When they see that their parents are chronically unemployed despite having had some education, they lose faith in the value of education.

Thus when after the riots, Mr Cameron lectured them in a small town in Oxfordshire about being good family men and women, and taking responsibility for their actions, they heckled him and said the biggest threat to public order comes from his austerity measures.

The austerity measures come on top of dualistic neoliberal policies pursued for three decades, which pamper the rich and punish the poor. Britain is today one of Europe’s most unequal societies, where the richest 10 percent are 100 times wealthier that the bottom tenth. Worse, it has the lowest social mobility among all OECD countries.

Britain, which once laid claim to inclusive growth, a degree of social cohesion and the best free healthcare system in the world (the National Health Service), is both a faltering economy and a deeply divided society, whose rifts cannot be healed under “free-market” policy approaches.

Mr Cameron now talks of reversing “the slow-motion moral collapse” of Britain’s “broken” society, which he blames for the violence, but which he is unable to relate to these very approaches. He has pledged to end the culture of timidity in discussing family breakdown or in criticising those who fail to set a good example to their children.

He said: “We have too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong… We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy”.

This is classic Tory talk, which in a reactionary manner celebrates conservative middle class family values. It blames the poor, and regards their troubled lives as the cause, not the consequence, of the collapse of their communities. Poor children are feckless, lazy and on the wrong side of the law because they choose to be so. But it is precisely such Thatcherite thinking, and Tory-style policies, followed also under New Labour, that have brought Britain to the present pass.

Mr Cameron had another pseudo-solution—to get former police chief of New York and Los Angeles Bill Bratton to advise British agencies on how to tackle “gang culture”. The move has angered Scotland Yard officers, who believe it’s absurd to get someone “who lives 5,000 miles away” and is unacquainted with the culture of the British police. Hugh Orde, a front-runner for the post of London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner, ridiculed the idea: “I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them…if you’ve got 400 gangs, then you’re not being very effective.”

Mr Cameron has called off the plan, but the fact that he drew it up in the first place reveals his mindset. Britain is moving towards US-style strong-arm, fear-inducing policing. The gentle, unarmed, impeccably polite Bobby will soon become a relic maintained for tourists, while draconian policing will prevail. Already, the British police have been looking for ways to instill fear in the public, especially demonstrators. They killed an innocent man who walked into the protests at the 2009 G-20 meeting in London. There have been more than 330 deaths in police custody since 1998.

The post-riot situation provides an important opportunity to do some soul-searching about the many crises and pathologies of British society. Mr Cameron’s government would do well to seize that opportunity. If it instead uses brute force as a solution to social discontent bred by bad social and economic policies, its crisis of credibility will deepen further.

Britain is in some ways a special case of a society long poisoned by the ideas of the Right, including Thatcherite celebration of acquisitiveness and greed. This explains to a large extent why the rioters looted fancy shops and stole premium-branded garments, shoes and TV sets.

Deplorable as it is, stealing is only the extreme form of hedonistic acquisitiveness. If you have been brought up to believe that there’s nothing wrong with limitless consumption and greed, and you see the rich and powerful stealing public funds on a massive scale with impunity, you might as well steal when you can and what you can.

Capitalism has plunged Western Europe into a terrible crisis with the 2008 Great Recession. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy are in serious trouble and are being forced by the IMF and kindred institutions to adopt mindless austerity plans which impose great hardship upon the people and mock democracy.

Growing popular protest is the only redeeming feature of these societies. It might hold the key to a less gloomy future—if it leads to sensible and equitable policy changes.