Those London 'Riots'

Now that the dust has settled, so to speak, on the latest of the London civil disturbances, I thought that I would try to record what I thought. I think that, in the heat of the event, it is difficult for people not to fall to type and to project. Some people have been unable to resist seeing the riots as the rise of a disenfranchised class; others have condemned 'sheer criminality'; some have reached for race or ethno-cultural explanations'; others have found fault in the police. I think that the weakest explanations have placed the blame on 'the cuts' (which have really not happened yet, and which overall may not) and my own favourite, the corruption and isolation of the political and media classes. That latter point reflects my own prejudices, rather than any truth, I think--very few of those involved in riots must say to themselves 'well, the Prime Minister is a former gang member and cokehead and his deputy is an arsonist' before 'bricking' some chanel-for-chavs place in Clapham. Those sorts of rationalisations are made by middle-class anti-GMO or CND types, in my experience, and very few others.

It's clear that the riots were a complex and complicated phenomenon. There were at least three sorts of protest. One emerged out of agitation at the fringes of a peaceful protest in response to the killing of some form of gang condotierri in Tottenham. The details of that killing, which are still sketchy, have been absent from much of the debate. A second 'protest' was clearly organised criminality, revealed in flashes such as the attempt to reach wimbledon on the Croydon line by groups of people who were involved in some form of conspiracy with each other, or the organised attacks on stores in wandsworth. Thirdly, a sort of social explosion of looting and hysteria, partly occasioned by police tactics but mostly by youths of all classes and races, seems to have engulfed the two other efforts.

The riots were not London-wide; four out of thirty two boroughs saw major difficulties, and the 'copy cat' assaults on civic order in other cities seem to have been on a similar proportionate scale. Very few died, and high-value stores and areas were heavily protected; Detroit this was not.

Yet so many people seem determined to fight the last war. David Starkey called the riots a clash of cultures, but what he failed to understand, I think, is that London is now largely a separate country from England, and that there are not two cultures but dozens, merging and separating at different points. There is not the comfort of industrially-organised categories, whether of race or of class; instead, the picture is more some Medieval tableau in which different identities and feudal ties mix colonially with each other.

The people most desperate to fit in somewhere were the ones most caught out; middle-class whites and members of the welfare classes who had no religion, family honour or proper critical education to hold them back. Those who were part of a group--who didn't need to fit in, and who hadn't been produced by devastated family structures, like the Sikhs, Turks, Poles, and older-middle-classes in places like Putney and Kensington-- escaped, or even had a chew of the 'finest hour' cigar as they defended their areas.

In such circumstances, an organisation as clumsy and confused as the Metropolitan Police faces real difficulty. It was too slow for many of the gangs, though it performed well once alerted; simultaneously too heavy, and too restrained for street battles; and too aware that it either negotiated or occupied, but did not control, large parts of what was nominally the capital of the country. It's troops could turn up Roman style in, say, Croydon, without riot control equipment of the first order, and could charge and so on, but were conditioned not to hit out with truncheons or hand-to-hand, which may have disciplined some of those children out on the street. They became a sort of Roman kabuki, too distant and too full of people afraid of a career-ending lawsuit. They defended the gates well; but the bridges and walls were what burned.

The politicians have, as usual, been a disgrace. That's not surprising, and I won't dwell on the many and manifest faults they demonstrated. All I would note is that, when Boris Johnson (Bullingdon firestarted and Darius Guppy's thugmaster) talks of 'people with a sense of entitlement', and when David Cameron flails, and when Nick Clegg (arsonist) condemns, and when Michael Gove and Caroline Spellman (looters of the public purse)stamp their feet and shout, I really have to ask, 'what gives?'. Theresa May and Vince Cable seem to have been the only people with any moral authority who kept their heads, but like others they largely bit their tongues. The silence from the Bishops and Royals spoke volumes. Were they scared of revealing their lack of authority, or of bearing witness to the monsters beneath the ice?

I think that there are better models than the twentieth century ones to look to in order to explain what happened. New York's Irish riots (which were largely continuous from 1844 through the nineteenth century) were once part of my academic stomping ground, and I saw a lot of Butcher Bill, the gangs, and the Bowery last week, in my parallax view. On the wind, I even heard the silence of Dagger John. Those riots, as these, were neither of the Catholic nor the Protestant nor the urban nor the rural Irish solely, nor only of that ethnic group; and that ethnic group was also divided on class lines, and sat within a period of rapidly changing incomes and rapidly depreciating economic humanity. They're a much better model for what went on, with all their socialisation of violence and hopelessness than the riots of people in industrial societies in the 60s and 70s ever were. Of course, we shouldn't forget how violent London and England always were anyway; that old saw that the oddity was the period of Empire and War from around 1900 to 1960 that drilled repression into people of all classes and hues here shouldn't be forgotten. In one very real sense, we are back to the past, but those who think that they know things have forgotten everything. Those who haven't are ignored.

Ultimately, and with a pompous trill, the owl of Minerva sings only at dusk. We live in a society of consumerist trilogies and sequels, conditioned by movies and stories in our childhoods long ago. Episode one of London's troubles seems to have been the tentative, clumsy reworking of public protest that culminated in the students' demonstrations last year. None of them were used to the fight; none had brought implements or floorbrushes (great urban pikes, and not a weapon, except to horses and thin lines) or tactical intelligence to prevent the relatively straightforward kettling tactics of the police.

Now, the gangs and the discontented have got a bit bolder, and the police are under pressure. I worry what the third episode, when everyone is seasoned and when the middle classes and those who will be hit in the coming winter, of all ages, sexes and conditions, by economic, energy, food and pensions crises as well as unemployment and financial desperation, will bring. Napoleon fell at Waterloo not when he surrendered, but when the Imperial Guard turned around and walked back under Wellington's fire. There may well come a point when the police--because they have families and debts and sense too--will retreat, next time, and then we'll really see trouble. I hope that I never see it.

What else? We've discovered again that the media do not understand sentencing, and that some magistrates--many magistrates--do not either; that the governing classes of this country hanker for a bloody code; that we're at 1905, really, rather than 1917, and that left-wing attempts to make every uprising a sort of abortionists' pilgrimage of grace are now completely bankrupt.

Get your seats, as far away on the high tier, with pre-bought food, now; you ain't seen nothing yet.


Edward Spalton said…
Nice to see you on the blog again, Martin,
with food for thought as usual. We seem to live in rather Weimar-ish times, complicated by mass immigration as a result of deliberate government polices over the years. With all the "quantitative easing" about, the consequent effects of massive inflation must surely soon be added to this hell's broth.
Martin Meenagh said…
I'm always glad to receive a comment from your good self, Edward. Weimar-ish is one of the right words for things, I think. The financial markets are gyrating by the day through anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance that the recession never really went away for many and is about to become a depression for some. At the same time, we have a populace that has no idea of sacrifice, and we are at the mercy of contingent events--it is fairly easy, for instance, to predict that the bitingly cold winter that the southern hemisphere is experiencing will bring us to the edge of breakdown when it moves north. Stagflation, plus cold, plus peak oil and peak food--a broth indeed!
The different national iterations of trouble are interesting--riots here, 'carbeques' in Germany, 'flash mobs' in America, protests in the 'club dead' of the mediterranean rim.
Stock up!