“The noises of destruction, flying all around…”

August 9, 2011

Over the past three days, two different types of rioting has been going on. The first, and far more serious, looting has been the smashing, looting and burning of scores of businesses across London. The second type is people pilfering these events and projecting onto them their own particular prejudices and causes. This has happened on both left and right, but particularly the left.

What these riots have done is show just how authoritarian the instincts of some of the British public can be. This is not just from the “usual suspects”: even supposedly bleeding-heart Liberal Democrats like Simon Hughes and Evan Harris have advocated the use of water cannon and sending in the army respectively. We’ve even had a contribution from Roger Helmer, everyone’s favourite Tory MEP. When he’s not arguing that homophobia doesn’t exist, or that women are responsible for their own rape, he’s tweeting this:

Because, of course, the only proper response to mindless violence is more mindless violence.

None of these options seems particularly wise. I’ve written before about why using water cannon would be a dangerous and bad move, whilst David Allen Green has a good post on why the army should not be called in: they do not have the relevant training, and it didn’t exactly work out in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday, anyone?). The solution now seems to be that we’ll arm police with plastic bullets. They are “non-fatal”, apparently, but using them just doesn’t seem sensible. One stray bullet and we’ll have riots for another week at least.

We also have a large section of the left which seems perfectly happy to drop any notion of personal responsibility and go instead for political points-scoring and anti-cuts rhetoric. Ken Livingstone has been one of the more egregious examples of this, especially on Newsnight yesterday.

Much of the response has blamed these riots on cuts or poverty. These explanations don’t quite stack up with the available evidence. The Guardian has reported that many of these rioters are organising on Blackberrys. Rioters who can afford Blackberrys doesn’t sound like the urban poor rising up to me. Not in a country where people are starting to turn of fridges because they cannot afford the electricity.

Also, the cuts haven’t happened yet, so it’s not as if these protests were about service provision specifically. There’s been a lot of looting but nothing about Sure Start, Youth Centres or Citizens Advice Bureaus.

From the reports that have been coming in, it seems that there are three kinds of people participating in the riots, so it’s slightly more complicated than is suggested at first sight.

The first, and by far the smallest, group are the only ones to whom you could ascribe any “political” motivation. It includes people like this:

[H]ere’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard,  more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

Concerns over police tactics, for instance, was an issue even before Mark Duggan was shot in what is becoming ever-muddier circumstances. It may perhaps have started over that, but what has followed has shown that, at root, most of these rioters aren’t “political”.

Others will argue otherwise. Adam Ramsay for instance wrote that these riots were political because “every act is a political act”.

I disagree. If everything is political, then nothing is political. The aims of the majority of rioters were not political.

Compare this violence to the rioting that started during the student fees protest in November. Then, the smashing up of Millbank and only contained to that one building. Which was at least relevant on a fees protest, as it was the  Conservative Party HQ, even if the violence itself was unjustified.

Contrast this to the rioting that has happened over the past few days. It’s not establishment buildings that have been targeted, but businesses. Even small family businesses, such as House of Reeves in Croydon. The shop was owned by the same family for five generations, survived two world wars, but did not survive a gang of out-of-control youngsters.

This brings us to the second group of rioters: violent thugs. I don’t know if “mindless” is the right word. How do you describe people who will help an injured, dazed teenager to his feet and then steal from his bag?

If “mindless” is not the word, perhaps “endemic” is. Evil maybe.

What seems to be happening is that violence that is generally confined to a few no-go areas around the city has spilled out across London and elsewhere. Probably because people can – the police are in many cases not able to stop them, and this only gives them motivation to continue.

The third, and final category, is people who want free stuff. I hope you’ve all seen by now the pictures of people who’ve been looting for, er, Tesco Value Basmati Rice, or tweeting about how they won’t get caught for stealing tracksuits, because they’re pathetically amusing. Some people seem to have used the opportunity to go and do a spot of opportunistic stealing. As was said yesterday by a friend, “Young people in the Arab Spring fought for freedom, democracy and the right to self determination. Our young people loot and destroy for Ipads and Blackberrys.”

So the roots of the riots were not political. Some of the responses are not political either. I have been greatly heartened by, and do not want to politicise, the amount of people who went out with brooms to reclaim their city:

or who served tea to police on riot shields:

This was not political; this was people just being nice and caring for others.

Part of the response, however, has to be political. Riots do not happen in a vacuum. There are obviously myriad social problems to address, and countless ways in which they can be tackled.

The best left-wing soundbite on crime remains Tony Blair’s “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. We can focus on the causes of crime soon enough in the months and years ahead. For now, let’s concentrate on ridding the cities of rioters and cleaning up the mess they’ve left. Only then can we focus on how to rebuild them.

You can’t condone the violence, but you can understand it

November 16, 2010

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel

Elvis Costello, Radio Radio.

This blog is called Paperback Rioter because it’s a cute pun, but there’s a semi-serious point behind that pun. I don’t do rioting: this blog really is a chronicle of “fear and loathing on the campaign trail”. I write, debate, attend meetings, will be campaigning for AV, go on the occasional march. But I don’t kick in windows or throw fire extinguishers off buildings. That’s not my style.

The reasons why are rather obvious. The right to protest does not equal the right to violence.

Also, violence does not help the cause of the protesters. The usual caveats about opinion polls apply obviously, but of those sampled for Yougov (see p5), 69% say that the violence damaged the protester’s cause, as opposed to only 11% who thought it helped the cause. Three quarters of those surveyed say that violent protest is never acceptable in a democracy. This comes from a survey where 65% sympathised with the demonstration and the majority of whom (52% to 35%) disagree with the government’s policy on tuition fees.

Those minimising or condoning the violence (of which there are quite a few) like to draw attention to the fact that the protests only got so much publicity because of the violence.

This implies that all publicity is good publicity, which is obviously not true. I’ve highlighted in the last paragraph that it probably damaged the cause amongst the general public. This Daily Mail front page about the activities of Labour MPs probably gave a lot of publicity to the Labour Party, but you’d be hard-pushed to say that all this publicity was beneficial:


Having said all that, this violence is understandable. It also isn’t just coming from the usual “rent-a-mobs”. As Laurie Penny observed in her brilliant, must-read Gonzo-style piece on the Millbank violence. This is just one example of many from her piece:

Not all of those smashing through the foyer are in any way kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang. These are kids making it up as they go along. A shy looking girl in a nice tweed coat and bobble hat ducks out of the way of some flying glass, squeaks in fright, but sets her lips determinedly and walks forward, not back, towards the line of riot cops. I see her pull up the neck of her pink polo-neck to hide her face, aping those who have improvised bandanas. She gives the glass under her feet a tentative stomp, and then a firmer one. Crunch, it goes. Crunch.

Which begs the question: why are there angry protests happening now, when in 2003 New Labour tripled university fees to £3000 a year, just two years after their manifesto said that they “will not introduce top-up fees and has legislated against them”?

Some on the right have argued that because now “teh evul Toriez” are in power, the left has reverted to its default position of opposing everything they do. This is slightly paranoid of them, but might contain a grain of truth. New Labour could certainly get away with acts like introducing tuition fees and experience far less dissent from the left than if a Tory government had introduced a similar policy.

The anger is about more than that, though. It’s about 13 years of broken promises from a Labour government. It’s that almost 7 million people voted Liberal Democrat in May, a party who had pledged to scrap fees, and are now going to triple them now in government.

To understand the anger, then, we need to go back to that greatest of moral philosophers, George W. Bush:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me

It’s not as if scenes like this weren’t foreseen. In April, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (not to be confused with the Deputy Prime Minister of the same name) said there could be riots in the streets if savage cuts were implemented:

As Johann Hari has written, all that’s changed is that now Clegg is the chief cutter.

It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the Lib Dem betrayal. Clegg has used this opportunity to been able to drop a policy he tried to get rid of last year. After the party rebelled against him and voted to keep its policy of abolishing fees, every Lib Dem MP signed a pledge to abolish fees. It transpires that that the Lib Dems had no intention of keeping in a hung parliament:

[A] secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years

A democratic solution has therefore failed, so it’s no great surprise rioters are taking to the streets. We now need another democratic solution: backing the right to recall (another Lib Dem policy).

This would mean that MPs who break promises or are found guilty of impropriety would be vulnerable to a constituency petition. If ten per cent of constituents sign that petition, then that MP would face an immediate by-election.


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