Notes From the Margins…

Britain Cracks Up

  • August 09, 2011
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Prophecy is never an exact science, but  Nick Cohen’s observation in Sunday’s Observer ‘No riots in Britain. Just quiet, ever-deeper anxiety’ must go down as one of   the more spectacularly ill-timed examples of media punditry in recent years.

In the space of two days,  a chain of riots and disturbances  has spread across the country with startling speed, completely wrongfooting the police and forcing the Bullingdonians and the ever-opportunistic Ed Miliband to break off their holidays.     As usual the  general tendency amongst  the police and politicians has been   to attribute these events  to ‘mindless violence’ , ‘pure criminality’, ‘copycat’ opportunism,  and of course good old ‘outside elements’.

The same interpretations were placed on the Brixton  and Toxteth riots in the 80s, and we should be as wary of them now as many were then.     It is too early to get a clear explanation for what has happened  these last few days, but  the speed with which the disturbances have spread  up and down the country clearly suggests a wider social and political context that goes beyond the police shooting  of Mark Duggan.

At few times in history has Britain’s political class so clearly and disgracefully reflected Shelley’s description of ‘rulers who neither see, nor feel nor know but leech-like to their fainting country cling.’

With breathtaking cynicism, the Coalition government used the debt crisis as an opportunity to carry out  a  radical privatising agenda that the Conservatives  had only dreamed about until last year.   Labour, for all its bleating complaints about ‘cutting too deep’,  shares the same belief that cuts are inevitable – and is basically playing an equally cynical and utterly self-interested  game of criticizing Cameron and Co in the hope of gaining electoral advantage as the cuts bite, without offering any coherent alternative that a Labour government  might be held hostage to in the future.

For all the propaganda about ‘the big society’, the cuts proposed by the Coalition  will wreak havoc on the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of British society and have already begun to do so.   These ‘reforms’ take place at a time when youth unemployment has hit a record high ,   at  20.3 percent in January.

These figures are much higher amongst black youth.   In January 2010 the thinktank Institute for Public Policy research reported that  the unemployment rate amongst Afro-Caribbeans aged between 16-24 stood at 48 percent, and 31 percent amongst Asians.

In June last year Ministry of Justice figures revealed a seventy percent rise in the numbers of black and Asians stopped by police in the streets since 2004/5, with black people seven percent more likely to be stopped than white people. So much for Britain being a post-racist society then, as the ridiculous ‘hard liberal’ Prospect magazine has argued.

All this has taken place at a time when the British ruling classes have been revealed as corrupt, dishonest and incompetent through a succession of scandals, from the  parliamentary s expenses crisis and the banks crisis to Hackgate, when the police have been given what often appears to be a carte blanche to beat up and even kill who they like – secure in the knowledge that no one was going to seriously investigate them.

Yesterday Gavin Esler on Newsnight declared that ‘we all want answers’ to the killing of Mark Duggan.   But the bleak truth is that ‘we’ would not have wanted answers, or even asked the question about the killing of a black man by the police  had it not been for the explosion of rage of the last few days.

The riots also take place against the background of  a global generational upheaval, in which young people across the Arab world, in Madrid Greece and even Israel are taking on rulers who are as bad – and often considerably worse – than those currently running Britain.

This is not to argue that riots are positive events, or that everyone participating in them is motivated by righteous indignation at the behaviour of the police.   Riots are not  coherent political statements, regardless of their social or political context.   Their destructive fury tends to fall most heavily on the neighbourhoods where they take place, and often  affects innocent people or people with no responsibility for the grievances that inspired such events in the first place.

Those who participate in them may be motivated by anger or a nihilistic ‘disaffection’ which leads them to destroy their own neighbourhoods.   Others may see an  opportunity to invert the normal rules of consumer society which expect customers to pay for the goods they walk away with, and engage in some profitable looting instead.   Their participants may include ‘ordinary criminals’ – whatever that means.

But such conflagrations can also reveal conflicts and fissures within the surrounding society that are generally concealed or ignored.   As brutal  and self-destructive as they are, they  express not just the chaotic rule of   ‘King Mob’ that rulers have feared throughout history, but the rage of those who have been left out of society or were never included in it the first place.

Sometimes, it takes a riot to  shock society from its arrogance and complacency, and if the events of the last few days have any positive outcome it can only be hoped that they illuminate the damage that  the  Bullingdonians and their cohorts propose to inflict on British society – and serve as a grim reminder that the poor will not always passively accept the garbage that politicians and the ‘free market’ have decided must be  heaped upon them.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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