Coming into power last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “big idea” was the “big society”, a thinly veiled excuse for reducing the “big state”. Seems like it’s going really well, that it’s really caught on nicely. I am not sure that helping yourself to a flat screen TV through a smashed-down shop door was quite what he had in mind, though perhaps the looter who provided the neatest soundbite explanation was right on Cameron’s button when she said “I’m getting my taxes back”.
When I happened to be back in my old home town on the weekend of August 14, superficially nothing was different. Even taking a voyeuristic wander down Tottenham High Road a few days later was not especially startling. Londoners have seen riots and damage to property before.
And anyone who knows London properly knows the pockets of grim poverty that lie almost hidden behind and between the prosperous streets, containing the latent venomous violence of decades of neglect and anger.
But what is interesting is the fact that it was all but impossible to explain the riots by reference to any one specific issue or problem. British riots have in the past tended to be isolated to the areas where the specific problem occurred. It was the geographical spread more than the intensity of the violence that was so startling this time round.
As Labour MP David Lammy pointed out in the aftermath of the riots, Tottenham has a history that involves deaths in police custody. It was the death in police custody of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham that led to the infamous riots of October 1985. And it was the death at the hands of the police that triggered the initial violence along Tottenham High Road on the Saturday night of August 6 this time. Yet, the copy-cat disorder that followed and soon went “viral” — to apply the techno vernacular — had little if anything to do with the death of Mark Duggan, shot dead by a policeman on August 4.
But if the rioting was not directed at, or an overt response to, a particular political issue or event — such as the Poll Tax in the early 1990s or racism in the police in the early 1980s – what was it all about? The difficulty in answering this question has plunged Britain into a deep-furrowed brow of collective angst and self-reflection.
And this is why the riots have changed Britain, because they have restored, or at least triggered the start of the restoration of ideological divide and debate. Not only were MPs dragged back from their summer holidays for a special sitting of the House of Commons, the media “silly season” was cut abruptly short as the newspapers went into a frenzy of, first, reportage and, second, speculation as to the cause or causes of the violence.
A deeper reason
The initial safe and cosy consensus that it was “just” criminality lasted but a day or two. No one seriously believed it. There had to be a deeper reason. And so the soul-searching began in earnest and continues to wage war in the British press and in the body politic.
Cameron has been pushed away from the anodyne centre-ground that his purported “modern” brand of Toryism promoted and to a large degree relied upon for election victory in 2010.
On Monday he was compelled to blame what he called “slow motion moral collapse”, while apparently sanctioning the raising of all manner of right-wing prescriptions, including removing the council house accommodation of those involved in looting, taking away their welfare benefits, while dispensing higher sentences for criminal conviction arising from the riots.
And, in spite of protestations from the police leadership — who are a pretty enlightened bunch these days — that human rights’ protections offer no substantive hindrance to effective policing, Cameron ordered a review of Britain’s Human Rights Act, the nearest thing the country has to a written constitution.
Meanwhile, in response, an outrage of left-of-centre columnists has awoken from the slumber of the Blair years to wage war in return. Even the cerebral Labour leader, Ed Miliband, appears to have found his voice, building the case in defence of the state and offering the best soundbite by turning Cameron’s call for personal responsibility to one of a “responsibility to provide opportunity”, a tidy variation of Blair’s famous “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
The contest to win the battle for “understanding” the riots has quickly made the dividing line between Cameron and Miliband clearer: for Cameron it is about culture and morality; for Miliband, by fundamental instinct a democratic socialist, it is about inequality.
It is not clear which approach will be the more persuasive to the British public, but Britain is thankfully emerging from the ideology-free zone of the Blair-Brown-led years of New Labour.
Unlike France, Germany, Italy and Spain, Britain has not had a relatively recent revolutionary moment; the English civil war of the 17th century was the last occasion for serious social and political renewal. Margaret Thatcher was an amateur compared with Oliver Cromwell. Political institutions, so distrusted and unloved by so many Britons, will have to change.
The most compelling piece thus far has come from a conservative columnist, Peter Oborne, the writer of a superb biography of Basil D’Oliveira. Oborne did what few writers have done and what Miliband has only dared hint at so far: draw the connection between the wanton disregard for the law by the looters and what Oborne calls the no less “feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington”.
Blaming a culture of greed and impunity as much on the MPs who fiddled their expenses as on the bankers whose reckless avarice prompted a global economic recession, Oborne argued in the Telegraph that “the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society”.
Something that can, perhaps, be said now, once again, of South Africa. For while the National Planning Commission in its cogently argued diagnostic report published last month is quite right to focus on poverty and inequality as the twin driving cause of South Africa’s unsustainability, it was also smart to note how a culture of unaccountability and corruption is serving to undermine efforts to develop a just society.
Those with opportunity have no right to complain about lawlessness if their venal acquisition of wealth is itself an act of plunder with impunity, setting the worst example for others with less opportunity to follow — in South Africa, in Britain and in all points east and west.