London riot police push rioters in Camden, August 2011. CREDIT: <a href="" target=_blank">Wikimedia</a>
London riot police push rioters in Camden, August 2011. CREDIT: Wikimedia

Reflections on the UK Riots: Let's Not Rush to Judgment

Aug 16, 2011

I was in London recently, briefly. I stayed in Bloomsbury—my favorite neighborhood of my favorite city. I spent a morning at the British Museum, visited the old lefty bookstore off Tottenham Court Road, and walked through Russell and Gordon Squares (true oases of quiet in the urban din, unlike New York's Bryant Park and other "leafy" enclaves). I had dinner with a friend at Westminster, then walked the couple of miles back to my hotel, past Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and the theatre district, and it struck me how uncharacteristically calm, unpeopled, London seemed for a pleasant early summer evening.

This fresh memory, of course, makes the current spectacle of sections of the city quite literally ablaze so searingly painful, even—perhaps especially—from the point of view of an expatriate. Of course, there is coverage aplenty of the London riots here in the United States. (Typically, I regret to say, there is a self-serving, almost narcissistic quality to the reporting: why is it that we Americans, in the wake of disasters, from tsunamis to mass violence, are immediately drawn to the over-the-shoulder, fearful question: Could it happen here?)

In the UK, the debate rages as to root causes, and along predictable lines. In the populist tabloids (yes, even after the cleansing of the Murdoch empire, there remain a hardy few) the message is the old Right "whack 'em and bash 'em" approach to all perceived antisocial behavior. This is mirrored in the response of the Conservative establishment; Prime Minister David Cameron, doubtless peeved at having to cut short a vacation, condemned the rioting as "criminality, pure and simple," and "mindless violence and thuggery." The Tory press organ, The Daily Telegraph, deplored a "culture of greed and impunity." At the other end of the political spectrum, the leftist New Statesman spoke of a "disturbed and profoundly unequal society," while sounding the alarm bell that worse may be yet to come, since the draconian social spending cuts introduced by the Tory government and its increasingly hapless co-conspirator, the Liberal Democrats party, have largely not yet taken effect. In good British tradition, sardonic black humor also thrives: Libya has recognized the street protesters as the legitimate government of Britain.

Now, about those root causes. First, one might think of what this is not all about. Inevitably, there have been comparisons evoked of the riots in the Brixton and Toxteth areas of London 30 years ago. But those were manifestly race riots in underclass city neighborhoods, and while the match to the powder keg here was the shooting of a black man in the north London neighborhood of Tottenham, the violence crisscrossed the city, and involved some of the most tony, upscale addresses.

Second, there is the significant difference that these outbreaks have spread—to Birmingham, England's second-largest city, to industrial cities in the North, even to bucolic Gloucester in the West Country.

Third, the "mob," a phenomenon one usually associates with those at the low end of the economic stratum, has included a number of middle-class looters who seem at a loss to explain their actions—and who, in a number of cases, subsequently turned themselves in.

As is so often the case in events so unexpected and alarming, the rush to analysis seems premature, unhelpful. The fixation on the social media, the "mobile platform" as the catalyst for bringing throngs of disaffected young out into the streets is predictable but lacks completeness as an explanation.

Writing in the Financial Times, Gautam Malkani, author of the visionary novel Londonistan, colorfully evoked "Britain's rich tradition of fictional visions of dystopia," and especially A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess's novel of 1962 turned into a film by Stanley Kubrick. In this masterpiece of the societal apocalypse, the "hero" Alex and his followers, with "complete lack of political motivation…revel in demonic violence to stave off the demon of boredom." The associative image is richly intriguing, but the validity of the comparison may be a stretch. Another default option for commentators has been the growing public distrust, at least among the young, of the British police.

In the same edition of the FT in which Malkani writes, there is an elegiac piece by the (conservative) Weekly Standard commentator, Christopher Caldwell, titled "The death knell for the era of the British bobby" ("Bobby" being a time-honored term of affection for the British policeman, commonly thought to be a tip of the hat to Sir Robert Peel, creator of the London Metropolitan police force). In fact, the genial image of the gruffly friendly British copper ("Move along now, son") is a romantic anachronism. And, incidentally, what is all the more astonishing with respect to the rash of violence in London and elsewhere is that in a very modern sense, Britain is a much more "policed" society than our own, with closed circuit cameras ubiquitously placed, from city centers to highways-check out any episode of the quite addictive BBC series, MI5, and you will hear the words "Check out the CCTVs in that area."

As we wait, and hope, for violence to subside, therefore, so too we should allow time and sober reflection to offer better analysis and thence, perhaps, remedies. But one cannot resist two reflections on the immediate rush to judgment: first, if the Telegraph's "culture of greed and impunity" holds any water, we need not look too far for its stimulus; in the same House of Commons where members rush to condemn the looters and rioters, there was recently exposed a widespread and cynical thievery, in the form of substantial dollops of public funds being siphoned off by MPs for bogus "job-related expenses."

Second, even as the socialist New Statesman trumpets its condemnation of "disturbed and unequal society" and laments the acquisitive nature of today's Britain, the lead opinion article containing all this is sandwiched between two full-page ads for extremely expensive automobiles. Root and branch stuff, indeed, to quote a favorite expression of Prime Minister Cameron.

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