The English riots: consequences as well as causes

More than enough has been written from all parts of the political spectrum about the underlying causes of the recent riots, looting and arson all over England.  Most of those causes are too obvious to need re-stating.  It’s equally important to consider the likely consequences of these events and how, if at all, they might be limited.  The worst of the consequences must be the probable demise of the proposals of the enlightened Conservative Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, for sharply reducing the bloated size of our prison population, concentrating on the rehabilitation and humanising of those prisoners who genuinely need to be there, and thus reducing current appallingly high rates of re-offending.  A key part of this programme, the replacement of the indefensible system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection or IPPs, for which this blog and hundreds of contributors to it have persistently campaigned, is unlikely to win public support in the current atmosphere of savage (and largely justified) animosity against the thieves, muggers and arsonists who briefly gained control of our streets only a few days ago.  In the current climate of fear and vindictiveness among our political classes, anything remotely associated with liberalisation of our medieval prison and penal policies will be howled down and torn to pieces by the slavering hounds of punitive reaction.  Ken Clarke must be one of the most disappointed and saddest men in politics.  The abandonment of what remains of his reform programme, now probably inevitable, ranks among the most tragic casualties of these dreadful events.

A more general consequence will be the huge cost of financial and other support for those who have lost their livelihoods, been made homeless, or been injured, by the indiscriminate violence and the looting and torching of shops, businesses and homes.  Huge insurance pay-outs will lead to overall increases in premiums, which will necessarily be passed on eventually in higher prices for everyone. Inescapable government expenditure on sustaining the homeless and those whose jobs have been destroyed, as well as contributing to the cost of re-building gutted premises, will inevitably add to the budget deficit, paid for ultimately from increased taxation or, more likely, yet more cuts in other social services.  The level of household demand in the economy, already so low that it’s paralysing the country’s recovery from recession, will be further reduced by the loss of people’s livelihoods and resulting destruction of their spending power.  The off-setting stimulus provided by rebuilding activity and the jobs it will create will be temporary and short-lived, as the Japanese experience after the floods and tsunami has demonstrated.  On the plus side, the manifest need for generous government support of the victims of the looting and destruction may help to discredit once again the neo-liberal lie that central government expenditure is the problem, not the solution.  The further stimulus to the recovery of demand and return to growth in the economy that only fresh medium- and long-term government spending can provide might even gain general support, now that ministers are forced to acknowledge the government’s responsibility for helping the victims of the riots.  Even our pig-headed Chancellor will be hard put to it to avoid some bumping up of public expenditure in these saddest of circumstances.

Analysis of the underlying causes of the riots in the left-of-centre media has been generally predictable.  What many commentators have described as the root causes of the class conflict (I use the term advisedly) that we have been witnessing in this past week are mostly so obvious as hardly to be worth stating.  It’s hard to restrain one’s anger with a governing class that has ruled us for the last three decades largely in the interests of the rich and privileged, imposing on us an economic and financial system based on a self-interested, intellectually disreputable, discredited and indefensible ideology, recklessly dismantling, step by step, the unifying social contract, evolved during the second world war and the first few decades after it, which during all that time was almost universally accepted at all levels of society as palpably fair.  It was Mrs Thatcher, with her simple-minded dogmas and petty provincial values, who began the work of destruction – to the despair not only of Labour and Liberal progressives but also of committed Conservatives like Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, Lord Carrington and Harold Macmillan.

After the Thatcher-Major years, the Blair-Brown government had notable achievements to its credit in rescuing large parts of the welfare state and social services from the depredations and neglect of its Tory predecessors, but in other areas it continued Thatcherite policies of neoliberalism, further dismantling almost all democratic restraints on the financial and business sectors, ignoring the growing mountain of private debt, continuing to privatise essential public utilities, relying increasingly for government revenue on the grotesque profits of the financial sector at the expense of declining industry, and explicitly indifferent to the resulting increase in gross inequality in society and the social consequences that have increasingly flowed from it.  A succession of reactionary New Labour and Tory home secretaries have exploited international terrorism in order to justify more and more draconian measures of repression designed to keep the lid on the inevitable anger and frustration of a larger and larger under-class, augmented by immigration, degraded by the breakdown of the family and of enlightened education and by unscrupulous profit-driven tabloids, and ruthlessly exploited by a greedy and unprincipled private sector indifferent to the public interest and focused exclusively on short-term shareholder value. The international banking failure and resulting global recession have given our current political masters a further pretext for winding down what remain of our social services, making the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens pay the price of the greed and antisocial antics of the investment bankers and businessmen.  The justified sense of injustice has been sharply aggravated by the recent evidence of the continuing antisocial greed of the bankers and other rich tax-dodgers, the scandal of MPs’ expenses, the revelation of industrial-scale law-breaking by the media and the collusive bribery of the police.

I’m not suggesting that every thief or thug out on our streets on recent nights has been acting in protest or even in knowledge of these scandals: only that the discrediting of such a broad swath of the ruling classes has created a palpable atmosphere in which even once respected members of society have been shown to be shamelessly grabbing what they can for themselves, inevitably prompting the question: if they can do it, why can’t I?  Now the riots, looting and arson of the last few days are providing yet another pretext for still more repressive measures against the victims of the crude class warfare which has been shamelessly waged against them throughout the time in which most of them have been alive.

Yesterday I spent some hours listening appalled to the debate on the riots in the house of commons, specially recalled for the purpose from its holidays on the Mediterranean beaches and in the North American mountains.  Tory after Tory, including David Cameron with reckless clarity, declared that poverty, unemployment, the abolition or curtailment of even basic welfare payments, rotten and inadequate housing and schools, the lack of hope or opportunity, or any of the other desperate deprivations that we, the rich, have visited on our fellow-citizens, couldn’t “excuse” the criminality that we have been experiencing on our streets.  It shouldn’t need saying that absolutely no-one, not even the most rabid letter-writer to the Guardian, has suggested for a moment that these grim conditions “excuse” crime.  Deliberately confusing the definition of contributory causes with ‘excuses’ is a cheap and discreditable trick.  But those who see only criminality in what has been happening, and who can’t imagine doing anything about it beyond increased savagery in sentencing and punishment, should have no place in public life.  Unfortunately that applies to a sizeable number of those who govern us, on both sides of the political fence.

Rioting and criminality by some members of an oppressed and neglected under-class are nothing new.  I was living and working in New York at the time of the riots that followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both justly regarded as champions and eloquent voices for the dispossessed (it’s still legitimate to ask oneself cui bono?  who benefited from silencing them?).  I remember the great satirist Mort Sahl remarking with brutal irony at that time on the spectacle of thousands of poor Americans expressing their grief and anger over the murders of their champions by breaking into stores and stealing refrigerators.  Again and again in continent after continent resentment against authority manifests itself in attacks on the nearest available target, usually the police.  It doesn’t require any expertise in Keynesian theory to recognise rank injustice and grotesque inequality in a consumer society and a celebrity culture where people experience acute poverty in the midst of blatant and extravagant luxury enjoyed, often, by those who have seemingly done nothing to earn it.  As every parent and teacher knows, one of the first moral judgements pronounced by small children is invariably “That’s not fair.”  There comes a point when those who know that their treatment by society is not fair but who feel helpless to do anything about it feel justified — wrongly according to the social code by which we have to live — in taking the only action open to them to gain some control of their own lives.  That’s inexcusable;  but then so is the condition to which we have reduced our society.  Many of those who took to the streets last week will end up in an over-crowded prison, abandoned in their cells for perhaps 22 hours a day, depersonalised and in many cases criminalised for life by the experience.  The ‘remedy’, being essentially irrelevant, will be worse than the disease — not only for the teen-age looters and arsonists, but for all of us.

Update, 2300hrs 12 Aug 2011: Those who, like me, are disturbed by the sentence of six months’ imprisonment passed on 23-year-old Nicholas Robinson, an electrical engineering student, for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from a branch of Lidl in Brixton, are urged to read a sober and scrupulous analysis of the sentence in MTPT’s blog, here (hat-tip: Tony Hatfield on Facebook).  The only possible conclusion from this analysis is that the sentence was a travesty of justice and that it ought to be immediately reduced on appeal to a community service order asnd curfew.  It will be worrying if the atmosphere of fear and vindictiveness generated by the riots is allowed to result in excessively harsh sentences being passed on those who in many cases don’t deserve the sympathy that such injustice will evoke.  The same applies to whole families now being evicted from their council flats or houses on the basis that one family member has been charged — but not yet even convicted — of participation in looting or other riot-associated offences.  This reeks of both collective punishment and blatant disregard of the principle of entitlement to the presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law.  We are seeing evidence of fear and panic on the part of our governing class:  not a pretty sight.


2 Responses

  1. Pete Kercher says:

    Well written, Brian: I find myself in total agreement with you. So refreshing (if that adjective is admissible, under the circumstances), after all the superficial hype of the last few days and the pathetic reporting I have read here in Italy, where each “commentator” has merely used the British events to justify his own prejudices about Italian politics (I use the masculine pronoun intentionally: one can search for many a year before finding a female leader writer in Italy). Thus the majority of them have been howling about the deleterious effects of multiculturalism, without bothering to follow up the many comments to their articles that have been pointing out that they have been following red herrings. Your analysis should be obligatory reading for every commentator before they start pontificating for the (dubious) benefit of their readers.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Pete. One of the interesting features of these riots is that whatever else they might have been, they were not ‘race riots’ in any recognisable way. I’m not sure whether that can be claimed as a success for muliculturalism, or a failure. The already evident fact that the rioters, even including the looters, came from such apparently diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds must imply extremely complex and diverse causes: these may even differ as between the different geographical locations of the outbreaks. Serious research, free from political or ideological bias, may eventually shed useful light on this. Meanwhile those of us — for I’m bound to include myself in this — who have a political axe to grind are having a field day interpreting the causes of the riots as positive confirmation of our pre-existing political philosophies.

  2. John O'Sullivan says:

    Thank you for such a cogent and (in my view) balanced assessment. To me three phrases of what you’ve written stand out in particular: “discredited and indefensible ideology”, “more and more draconian measures of repression designed to keep the lid on the inevitable anger and frustration of a larger and larger under-class”, and “seeing evidence of fear and panic on the part of our governing class”. I find myself very concerned at the motives and thinking of the so-called governing class that accept and encourage such conduct. In addition, I fully agree with your comments on the sentence meted out to Nicholas Robinson.
    What really despairs me is the lack of long-term plans to draw into society those who seem to have no part in it. As you yourself have implied on previous occasions the massively centralized power structure in the country leaves many completely detached from an individual and collective sense of responsibility for their own locality, their own town, their own city. This may appear very separate from the immediate problem but long-term thinking must form a part of any worthwhile and intelligent action. Yes, it’s those old chestnuts – constitutional reform and a re-vitalized and muscular real local government. How are the powerful persuaded to release some of their hold on power that would then flow to local level? Is that stupidly asking turkeys to be assured of the general benefits of Christmas? This is not the place for an elaborate dissertation on such topics but I genuinely cannot see a proper way forward from our current social problems without such matters being addressed.
    As I don’t have a magic wand I’d better leave it there for now.
    Thank you.

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for these thought-provoking comments. I’m sure you’re right and that part of the answer to at least one of the problems is to drive real power much further downwards to local level, even to wards and parishes, so that people feel a real stake in their local community — the Small Society, not the Big one. I persist in believing that a vital first step towards this push for decentralisation must be Devolution Max for England as well as for the rest of the UK, with further tiers of devolution within England and the other three UK nations. But, as you rightly say, it’s hard to persuade these turkeys to vote for Christmas and the draining away of their powers. The reaction of the right-wing establishment that rules us to last week’s riots is aptly summed up in the prime minister’s appalling speech today, promising yet more repressive powers for the police, even more draconian punishment of offenders, dilution of the Human Rights Convention (although that at least ought to be unachievable although the UK Human Rights Act is clearly in danger), and some kind of disciplinarian boot camp for 16-year-olds, together with even more action to remove schools from local authority control, in effect placing them under Whitehall control coupled with privatising them. This is how a bone-headed governing class, scared half to death by the lumpenproletariat that it has itself created, persuades itself that it can protect its own power and privilege.