Britain's summer of discontent simmers, but what have we learned?

Britain is in denial, determined to wipe this month’s riots from its collective memory. But what does the future hold for an island where millions have fallen into the poverty trap and the economic forecast remains grim?

Britain is in denial, determined to wipe this month’s riots from its collective memory. But what does the future hold for an island where millions have fallen into the poverty trap and the economic forecast remains grim?
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North London is often referred to as "leafy". It certainly does have trees, and leaves, as anywhere in a country as wet as Britain ought to. But the term is mostly used to hint at its wealth, refinement and status.

But, on Saturday, August 6, a very different side of north London revealed itself. At about 10pm, I watched as two teenagers poured a bottle of lighter fluid across the width of Tottenham High Street. They did so halfway between a line of riot police and a group of 10 or so young men who were using a shopping trolley to try to smash through a shop window.

Once the two would be fire-starters had emptied the bottle, they tried to ignite it with a cigarette lighter, to create a wall of fire as a barrier between them and the police, who were twitching, but remained static in their position guarding the local police station.

The fire would not start. The duo kept trying and failing. The riot police finally raised their shields to charge and I withdrew to safety.

During the following hours, as helicopters hummed loudly overhead, I saw first a building then one of London's famous red double decker buses go up in flames. Fireworks were let off in the direction of mounted police, whose horses reared up and charged back in the general direction of the assorted locals, Saturday night revellers and journalists, who stood watching with unequal mixtures of fear, fascination, anger, sadness and excitement.

In the land of the fact-blind, conjecture is king. It was a response to police repression of the local black community, argued some; pure criminality, said others; a glorious expression of working-class anger, said one member of the Socialist Workers Party I spoke too.

One of the more specific opinions I heard that night was from a teenage girl who told me confidently that "every gang in Tottenham" was down there in the thick of it, that there were eight of these street gangs altogether (she reeled off a list to prove it), and each had 60-70 members.

I have no way of knowing if that is true - and even after more than 1,500 post-riot arrests across the UK, nor does anyone. But the picture is becoming clearer - analysis by The Guardian newspaper of 400 of those being tried in the courts for their part in the disturbances, found 73 per cent were 24 or under.

"It's not a race thing, it's a Tottenham thing," another local teenager told me that night, describing a general tension and antipathy between the mostly young, mostly poor people in the area, and the authorities.

Pretty soon it became much more than just a "Tottenham thing".

What had started that afternoon as a small, peaceful protest outside the police station, demanding answers into the shooting of a local black man, Mark Duggan, turned into trouble as darkness fell, and ignited a flame that spread with incredible speed over the following nights across London, then to Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham and beyond.

The first flashpoint was only a mile away from where, in 1985, the Broadwater Farm Riots exploded - and that too began with the death of a black Briton at the hands of police, before escalating into riots, more deaths and destruction.

The legacy of the race riots of the 1980s for Britain's black communities remains understandably potent.

While several of the Tottenham-born British rappers who have achieved chart success in the last few years were posting "Rest in Peace" messages on their Twitter accounts to Mark Duggan, a man they knew personally, one of them, "Scorcher", aka Tayo Jarrett, revealed that it was his grandmother, Cynthia Jarrett, whose death had sparked the Broadwater Farm riots.

But even with Brixton, too, up in flames, as it had been in 1981, the events of the last two weeks have been far too distinctive and complicated to be simply a 1980s redux, a postmodern retread of recent history for those too young to remember it.

There are parallels - a Conservative government imposing deep austerity cuts in a time of economic hardship, a black British community at best suspicious of a police force who use "profiling" techniques on ethnic minorities - but that is not the whole story. Britain has moved onwards but many of its citizens have not had the chance to move upwards.

In 2007, as leader of the opposition, David Cameron responded to a Unicef report into child well-being by noting that Britain had "the loneliest, worst behaved, unhappiest children in the developed world".

Clearly, as leader of a government that has now held office for 15 months, not 15 years, it would be trite to suggest that the riots are all his fault - the one thing everyone seemed to agree on on the streets of Tottenham that night was that this had been coming for a long time.

Wealth inequality has been rising steeply in Britain since 1979. By 2005, it had returned to post-war levels. By 2030, if current trends continue, it will have returned to Victorian levels, with the richest 0.1 per cent of earners taking home 14 per cent of the income.

With one million Brits unemployed, millions more working in part-time or low-paid jobs and living below the poverty line, "the trickle down effect" is more of a mirage than anything else.

While their roots may be deep, there is a reason these riots are happening now and didn't happen one, five, or 10 years ago.

Historically, austerity measures in times of crisis provoke this kind of upheaval. An almost eerily timely analysis published last week by the Social Science Research Network, entitled Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 found "a clear link between the magnitude of expenditure cutbacks and increases in social unrest. With every additional percentage point of GDP in spending cuts, the risk of unrest increases."

The prospects for Britain's poorest young people makes devastating reading. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has cut the Education Maintenance Allowance (a stipend for poorer 16-18 year olds who want to continue in education), tripled the university tuition fees cap to £9,000 a year, slashed 75 per cent of the youth services budget (providing opportunities and activities for young people) and all at a time when there is 21 per cent youth unemployment, the highest since records began in 1992.

This is a post baby-boomer generation where young Brits are now 25 per cent more likely to succumb to poverty than their parents, and a further 200,000 children will be pushed into poverty by government cuts, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Those figures are all national - they are likely to be far worse in the parts of England's inner cities that also saw rioting last week.

The canard of a post-recession recovery has certainly been found wanting in the country's poorest areas. In Haringey, the borough containing Tottenham, unemployment has risen 10 per cent in the last year and there are now 54 applicants for every job available.

Around the world, people have watched open-mouthed as parts of Britain went up in flames.

For many British commentators, this has been an almighty shock, too. "Political classes and media completely unsighted on London riots," tweeted Martin Bright, a respected journalist, after four nights of rioting, before summing up the mood among his peers: "Who are these young people?"

For these same young people, the only surprise was that anyone was surprised. While the vast majority of the media wondered aloud how the riots could possibly have been predicted, one teenager from Tottenham had done exactly that, eight days earlier - and on camera.

Speaking to a Guardian video journalist filming a story about youth club closures in the area, Chavez Campbell said "people want jobs. That's why there's more crime on the road because there's nothing to do. There's gonna be a riot. There'll be riots."

Disorder with uniquely contemporary causes have uniquely modern methods. The Arab Spring had Twitter, the British riots had BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

Much like the debates over the extent of social media's role in previous public uprisings and disorder, no one can quite agree, or prove their reach.

While it clearly didn't "fuel" the riots, as some commentators have said, there is plenty of evidence that the instant, free messaging service makes the BlackBerry particularly popular among young Brits - in this case, the option to send a message to all of your contacts, while still being essentially private, led to certain messages giving out meeting points to loot or trash areas. There were even rumours of PlayStation 3's messaging system - designed to connect online gamers - being used to plan where rioting and looting would begin.

British tabloids fulminated with the comical outrage often borne of generational ignorance - unlike Twitter, which they have finally got to grips with, BBM was a dangerous private communication system, secretive and self-contained. Much like, in fact, a text message or phone call.

David Lammy, member of parliament for Tottenham, called for BlackBerry to suspend its messaging service in attempt to stop rioters communicating.

Despite tabloid excitement about BlackBerry "broadcasts" and Twitter directing the mob, the riots and looting do not seem to have been nearly that organised - not in a hierarchical, top-down way, anyway.

This was not a mass orchestrated uprising but more of a mosaic of small, overlapping groups of the bored, the angry, the criminal and the opportunistic. I witnessed several times what one political activist friend observed as something resembling anarchist-style "affinity groups", small clusters of people who knew and looked out for each other, moved around together, perhaps collaborated with others, but mostly kept to themselves.

Sitting in my north London home on day two of the riots, at about 10pm on Sunday, I overheard a conversation between three or four young men outside my window.

"We've got to get down there!" said one. "Yeah OK, but where?" quizzed his friend. That night trouble had started in several parts of north, east and south London.

The first speaker, bursting with excitement, used hip-hop slang to reply: "I don't know - wherever it's cracking." He meant wherever it was happening. They just wanted to be there, in the heart of "it". I do not know what the intention of these young men was. It may have been, like mine, an urge to see what was happening in person rather than on TV, not wanting to miss the extraordinary things happening to our ordinary urban vistas.

In the discussions of family breakdown, violent video games, bling-promoting rap lyrics, desperate consumerist desire and the rest, boredom is the one motivating factor that has been under-written in all the hand-wringing.

Journalist Benji Lanyado was an exception to the rule. "Watching the riots and looting in London," he wrote, "seemingly so devoid of cause or motive, I couldn't help thinking that, ultimately, these kids were bored... seriously, horribly bored. Bored on an epidemic level. This was a chance for them to do something truly exciting. A chance to flee their listless lives for a few hours and do something pulse-raising." As guesswork goes, it is pretty persuasive. Indeed, one mother who handed her 12-year-old son in to Greater Manchester Police told the BBC: "The kid's bored. That's what it boils down to, boredom. There is nothing for him to do. You've come from a big posh estate probably - we're deprived. There's no activities, nothing for him whatsoever."

In the aftermath of the rioting, came the "clean-up". Organised largely via Twitter and Facebook, volunteers turned out on the streets armed with brooms to help sweep up the debris left from the rioting the night before. It seemed like a well-intentioned response to the trouble and was broadly celebrated by most - but the semiotics of the discourse around it have raised important points about the divided nature of modern British cities.

A provocative but brilliant piece of commentary from a group called the University for Strategic Optimism (UFSO) argued that this was a middle-class initiative designed to drive a wedge between themselves and the "feral underclass" who had been engaged in the rioting and looting - to set up an opposition between self-ascribed "real Londoners" with a right to the city and the largely poor, largely young Londoners who lived among them, people who they would never meet and never seek to understand.

"It's going to take more than posturing, 'blitz-spirit', keep-calm-and-carry-on claptrap and colonial Kiplingesque 'keeping your head' to fix this mess," ran the UFSO editorial. That "Keep Calm And Carry On" meme is an exemplary piece of modern British myth-making. A propaganda poster created by the British Ministry of Information in 1939, the slogan sitting beneath the crown, it was intended to provide reassurance in the event of a Nazi invasion. Incredibly, given its total ubiquity in British pop culture since its rediscovery in 2000, it was never officially put on display during the war.

The message speaks to centuries of national self-delusion peddled from the top down - the stiff upper lip in times of crisis, the stoical acceptance of one's fate and the Whiggish history popularised in the colonial period, which sought to write British history as a smooth, peaceful progression towards enlightened liberal democracy, eliding and gliding over foreign and civil wars, grotesque imperial brutality and domestic revolutions, riots, uprisings and repression through the ages.

Its popularity is situated in the long history of the British iconography of denial but its recent popularity is somehow especially worrying, particularly in the face of a second financial crisis in three years, devastating austerity measures and now riots on the streets.

Appropriately, in 2011, "Keep Calm and Carry On" has a consumer edge - it is possible to buy the poster image on clothing, mugs, tea cosies, deckchairs, cuff-links, even a First Aid kit.

After all, why treat the disease when you can just cover it up with a sticking plaster? Sweep up the broken glass and, with it, sweep the underlying causes of the riots under the carpet.

Much has been said about the looting of shops as a depoliticised form of unrest. "These shallow kids don't want change, they just want a nice pair of trainers" is a common refrain.

This ignores the fact that many looters seem to have been taking many of the same items to sell on for cash and that some were looting things that were less status symbols than basic means of survival, such as food and nappies.

Nonetheless, one of the most notorious BlackBerry broadcasts discovered by the media called for people to congregate in Oxford Circus, the heart of London's shopping district. It claimed that lots of "SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some [free stuff!!!]... tool up [bring a weapon], it's a free world so have fun running wild shopping".

One of the most thoughtful responses to the idea of a consumerism-fixated youth came from the journalist Alex Hoban, who wrote about a commentator on the BBC show Newsnight describing "rioters" anger being expressed in acts of "violent consumption."

Much of the looting was of chain shops stocking internationally-recognised electrical goods and branded clothing, by young people raised in a culture that makes unrelenting consumerism the norm.

Furthermore, the pursuit of consequence-free accumulation of material wealth is as potent in the unsustainable inflations of the financial bubble as in the glittering nexus of pop culture and advertising.

It may be crass sloganeering to say "the bankers are the real looters", as some on the British left have done, but in terms of the impact each series of actions has had on the nation's economy, it's spot on.

Not much in Britain is sustainable right now. It is a country barely treading water after the first financial crisis, struggling to work out the shape of the next one, and with the worst of the public spending cuts still to take effect.

David Cameron's coalition government is fragile, hamstrung by its lack of a mandate.The riots have arrived after the phone-hacking scandal, which only began six weeks ago, had created a sense of a perfect storm of illegitimacy and corruption overwhelming Britain's elite.

During the hacking inquiry, as the latest in a series of revelations broke, a friend of mine commented: "Today really does feel like Britain: The End of Season Finale. Ten years of totally disparate events coming to a head."

While the media narrative has moved on to the riots, it lurks in the national consciousness along with the student protests in winter, the 500,000-strong protest against the government in March, the banking crisis, its £1.3 trillion bailout from public funds and, somewhere nearer the front of our national consciousness, the fact that things are not likely to get better. It is a system at the end of its tether.

Walking home through London in the heavily securitised aftermath of the riots, police sirens wailing theatrically to remind us they were there, I passed a public house near Finsbury Park station. Two black men in their late 50s and two white men in their early 20s were outside smoking, talking loudly about politics, the riots, the economy, everything. There was a lot of head-shaking. There is always a lot of head-shaking when the British talk about politics.

I joined them. They were sad and angry about the riots, about the punishment being given to looters - singling out a man who that day had been given a six-month prison sentence for looting a crate of water - and about much more, too.

They suggested deceit, corruption and bribery ran through the very top of the British elite, with poverty and unemployment increasingly dominating the lives of the masses.

As I made to leave, one of the young men tried to sum up all the things we had been talking about: "For the last three years, we've been completely screwed. It's over." It was late and I didn't ask him exactly what he meant. But I think I already knew.

Dan Hancox, a regular contributor to The Review, is the author of Summer of Unrest: Kettled Youth.