Notes From the Margins…


  • August 10, 2011
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Stunned and clearly scared out of its wits by the shocking events of the last few days, ‘decent’ British society – or at least those who claim to be its mouthpieces – is dreaming of vengeance and retribution.  Comments sections on websites and newspapers are thick with talk of plastic bullets, water cannons, vigilantes and bringing in the army.   The Sun, not surprisingly,  goes further, publishing a YouGov poll which found that 33 percent of respondents want real bullets to be used against the rioters.

In the Daily Mirror, the millionaire novelist Tony Parsons contrasts the ‘self-pitying scum’  with ‘the  quiet, decent families they have terrorised and robbed and burned from their homes’. Parsons’ sentimental evocation of his working class origins is steeped in saloon-bar assumptions about the rioters: “Those images of black youths looting and pillaging will not soon fade from the national consciousness. They have set race relations back in this country by 30 years.”

Parsons seems oblivious to the fact that many of the rioters are white,  or else he prefers to ignore it – the better to support his thesis that

What a bitter irony because of course, many of those masked thugs would have had absolutely no idea where their fathers were. And in their pathetic swaggering, we see the very limits of society”s attempts to be understanding, to be soft, to be compassionate.  In the end softened up with their human rights, pampered with a benefits system that was meant to protect the vulnerable we get this shabby shower.  We have produced a generation that is good for nothing but, paradoxically, is afraid of nothing.  How shameful to watch images of policemen who appear afraid to strike out in case they get dragged before some human rights tribunal.

The English Defence League, whose members are patrolling the streets of Luton and Manchester, has a not entirely dissimilar take on the events of the last few days.   Though its website resists the temptation to ‘jump out of place and blame this on Islam’ and claims ‘we don’t really have a view on the racial aspects of the riots’, it then contrasts what it describes as ‘an overwhelming and vicious police response’ to its own demonstrations with the supposedly soft police treatment of rioters and looters:

We know it is not the rank and file police who are responsible because we know we have huge sympathy in their ranks. There is something very rotten being fed down from the top, however. It’s obvious that, perhaps because of a perceived “un-whiteness” of the current criminal looters, the police have not been ordered to crack heads.

Given that it was the killing of an unarmed black man by police that sparked off the riots – not mention the brutal battering inflicted on student protesters last year – the idea that police were refusing to act against the rioters because of political correctness or fear of human rights violations is difficult to sustain, to say nothing of the EDL’s perception of its members as victimised patriots. And why is all this happening?  The EDL has no doubts

Patriotism and pride in one”s nation have been branded offensive and perhaps this is the result. We don”t know if the same shadowy forces that ran riot during the G20 “protests” and the student riots but the outcome looks similar.   Children are no longer  taught  to be proud of our history! They”re barely even taught any history and our schools don”t pass on patriotism or respect for our Queen and country any longer.

Meanwhile Jamie Oliver has tweeted that ‘we should crack down hard on these idiots’ in response to news that one of his restaurants in Birmingham has been trashed.  This is the man who came up with the idea of a televised ‘dream school’ to win back youth who had been ‘failed’ by the system – an utterly fake and pointless exercise in celebrity glorification whose naked self-promotion was only matched by its dim belief that someone like Alastair Campbell was some kind of role model for British youth.

Now Oliver laments the fact that ‘ the country has gone mad’ and praises the local clean up groups ‘who ‘care about our country.’   Oliver, like many of those exuding similar sentiments, have no explanation as to the mysterious appearance of so many people who do not ‘care’ about their country or even feel that they belong to it.

In the next few months the cretinous, cowardly and dishonest politicians who have done so much to bring about the current disaster will lament the loss of ‘community cohesiveness’ and promote the same kind of authoritarian solutions for a ‘divided Britain’ begun by New Labour.  But if the concept of a local, let alone a national ‘cohesive’ community is to have any meaning, then it must have something concrete to offer all its members,  beyond royal weddings, reactionary notions of Britishness and teary-eyed nostalgia for the empire.

True communities require a spirit of generosity, a degree of selflessness and a willingness to share their resources that has been absent nationally from British society for decades.  They cannot be built by transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, by celebrity chefs, dodgy bankers, millionaire footballers,  Jeremy Kyle, politicians on the make or Suralan Sugar.  Nor can they be built by riots and looting.

Years ago, in the early 80s, Margaret Thatcher declared that ‘there is no such thing as society.’   More recently Peter Mandelson  declared that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich.’

These two statements sum up the dominant national ethos that virtually all British political parties – and a wide sector of British society – has subscribed to for the best part of three decades. For some these were good years: rising house prices and second homes, expensive holidays abroad, bonuses for bankers to make Croesus blink, revolving doors for politicians, endless cooking programmes and narcissistic reality shows and nothing much to worry about except terrorists and the possibility of a fall in house prices.

Contrary to Parsons’ suggestion of a more caring and compassionate society, these years of plenty were matched by a coarsening and  brutalisation of public discourse, reflected particularly in the hysterical ‘debate’ about immigration and the cruel and vindictive treatment of asylum seekers.    And throughout this period of ‘growth’ there were those who received very little from it – or nothing at all beyond the possibility of a job at MacDonalds or a call centre, a drip feed of benefits or the spurious and delusional ‘respect’ that comes from membership of a street gang.

Now those days are gone, and they may not reappear for some time, and the future, politicians assure us, contains nothing but more cuts and more ‘austerity’.  And amid this generalised sense of hopelessness and perpetual crisis,  nihilistic legions of ‘ordinary criminals’ have appeared as if from nowhere to take a terrible revenge on the society that excluded them.

Talk of rubber bullets and soldiers may provide some visceral comfort to those who fear them, but it will not make them go away, and it will not repair the damage that was inflicted on British society long before the riots took place.

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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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