Gangland culture takes over where UK society leaves off
Commentators around the world have rushed to link the London riots to the protest movements in Arab countries which sparked revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, and near civil war in Syria. Of course there are similarities in every street disturbance, but in this case trying to draw comparisons is a dead end. It does not get us closer to understanding what was happening in either case.
This is easily illustrated by contrasting the risks that the young people ran. Thousands of Arab protesters have been shot dead by police and the army. In Britain, the police have not used live rounds, plastic bullets or even water cannon against the rioters.
In Britain, not a single political demand has been advanced, though police harassment of the black community is undoubtedly a spur. Attacking the police, however, has been a sideshow compared with consumer-choice looting. In Croydon, a suburb south of London, fires were set in a furniture warehouse - too bulky to loot - to distract police so that the youths could get their hands on high-end trainers and electronic goods.
The looters themselves have justified their actions variously - "the police are to blame for not stopping us"; "we want to show the rich we can do what we want"; "we are getting back our taxes."
The East London rapper known as Plan B has a more simple explanation. "I think they're doing it because they want some free stuff because they ain't got any, and they're angry at that."
If there is an event in modern Arab history which this reminds me of, it is not the "Arab spring", but the looting of Baghdad in 2003 after the US army invasion. Looters pillaged the city because there was a sudden realisation that there was no one to stop them.
The London riots erupted after a peaceful march to protest against the police shooting of a black man, Mark Duggan. The police claimed he died in an exchange of fire, but the local community, with long experience of the Metropolitan Police massaging the truth, suspected this was a lie, as has now been confirmed.
After the march, widespread looting broke out, and youths suddenly realised that the police were too thinly stretched to control them. With the prime minister and the mayor of London on holiday, and the Metropolitan Police leaderless following a wave of resignations caused by the newspaper phone-hacking scandal, authority seemed to melt away. Young people lost their fear of the police.
Of course, they had much to complain of: there are few jobs for the unskilled, and these tend to go to Poles or other European immigrants who work harder for less money. The end of the credit boom and looming government cuts mean life is going to get tougher. But what made these disturbances different from anything in the past was the realisation that small gangs of looters, connected by smart phones, could outmanoeuvre the police and shake society.
How it turned out this way has a long history. In the poorer parts of London, institutions - family, school, church and local government - have been hollowed out, leaving behind only consumer dreams. This applies to the underclass of both immigrant and native British heritage. Lacking any sense of community, young people turn to gangland culture as a substitute family to give structure to their lives and to acquire "respect".
Britain now leads western Europe in income inequality, and the number of school dropouts - known as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) is rising alarmingly. Seventeen per cent of 20 to 24 year olds have no role or prospects in the formal economy.
This is not to excuse wanton violence. But it does explain how rioting, which in 1981 was part of an overtly political movement for the black community to "stand up", has now been reduced to a violent mash-up of the consumer dream. Now that the years of easy credit have gone, stealing is the only way to get things the adverts tell you to buy.
It also points to the failure over the past 30 years by the government to create stable employment for the underclass. But it is foolish to blame the government for everything.
The only heroes of the rioting have been ethnic minorities who, while the middle classes have been glued to their televisions, stood up for their communities: the Turkish shopkeepers who defended their businesses in Enfield, the Sikhs who stood guard over their temple in Southall and, most of all, Tarik Jahan, a Birmingham man whose son was killed by a hit-and-run driver amid the looting on Tuesday night, and whose dignity and forbearance amid overwhelming grief touched the nation.
These people have put to shame the British elite, who have grown passive and rely unduly on the police. Questions are already being asked why, in a supposedly democratic society, the police are always being interviewed on television, not local politicians.
The issue in Britain is not kicking out the government. A much harder revolution is required. Everyone agrees that the forces of globalisation, which accentuate the differences between rich and poor and deprive the old working class of stable jobs, have to be confronted. This will have to be done by each community. Over the past 30 years the state has failed in this task, and the time has passed when all problems can be outsourced to the state. Now it is up to each community to stand up and help themselves.
Published: August 12, 2011 04:00 AM