BY REBECCA GOODACRE LONDON CORRESPONDENT With at least $160 million worth of damage, over 2,500 people arrested, almost 100 small businesses destroyed and five people dead, the riots in the UK last week were some of the worst seen for decades — at it’s peak, there were more fires burning in London than any time since The Blitz. Whilst lives are tentatively being put back together, the big question which still looms over politicians, the police and the general public is quite simply why? Thousands of people seemingly turned on their own communities, ruthlessly smashing and burning their way through buildings with total disregard for others, for themselves and for the law, yet after hours of analysis and relentless debate, there isn’t even a sniffling of a solid explanation. There are largely two approaches to the disturbances: those that believe the people responsible are some subhuman segment of society, deserving of the harshest and swiftest punishments possible, up to and including public flogging.
In contrast others believe that the rioters are a product of political and social failings, a view criticized as a squishy, soft-hearted liberal approach. Whilst both have a point, they also fall far short of a comprehensive understanding of what went wrong and how to make it right. With over 200,000 people signing the e-petition declaring “Convicted London rioters should loose [sic] all benefits” on a government website, it appears a significant number agree with the hard-liners. Spelling errors aside, with 200,000 signatures the petition has gained enough credibility to be granted discussion in the Houses of Parliament. It is a tactical punishment that, initially, seems logical. Those who show such little respect and complete disregard for society shall not be afforded the protections of society’s safety net. That includes government-funded housing, leaving the question of once evicted, where will these hundreds of convicted criminals and their families go? Probably not on to make a better lives for themselves seeing as they’ll be homeless. It is more likely they will reoffend, laying the groundwork for more public unrest.
In order to correct the fault lines that are emerging within British society, it is critical to understand what caused their appearance in the first place. Initially the blame was placed on the dramatic cuts to public spending David Cameron and his coalition government have made, and the detrimental effect these were having on the most vulnerable members of society. Yet, when it emerged that those turning up in court charged with varying counts of criminality were not just young people from the underclass, these theories stopped adding up. As amongst those charged has been an Oxford University graduate, an aspiring ballerina and the children of a devout evangelist minister. The man charged with burning down a 140-year-old furniture store is a 33-year-old father of two who has a full time job. Not your stereotypical unruly underclass rioters. It may be romantic to think that perhaps it shows a united people fighting back together for the little guy, but when the daughter of a wealthy CEO is acting as a getaway driver for a collection of stolen electronics it doesn’t seem to be an act of sympathy. With such a wide demographic of the perpetrators, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what brought so many people from such varying backgrounds to react in this way, and what they were even reacting to. There appears to be no common cause, other than to perhaps get a free flat screen TV.
In his most recent statement David Cameron has cited “troubled families” as the origins of the unrest. Fatherless children and poor schooling he believes are causing the people of Britain to become wayward. This has, not surprisingly, caused outcry from every child brought up by a single mother who managed not to loot their local grocery store. David Cameron wants to fix a “broken Britain”, but as a wealthy, privately educated, upper class man, I’m not altogether convinced Cameron has any real concept of what this actually means. Cameron has turned to Bill Bratton, dubbed a US “Supercop”, the man who cleaned up New York and Los Angeles. A move that bespeaks lack of faith in his own police force. However, with 62% of charges brought against those in the London riots being burglary, it seems the problems were less about making a point, but more to do with material gains. An increasing number of images have emerged on the internet with rioters proudly displaying their loot, dressed in masks standing next to waist high pile of Playstation 3s, looking like the modern day pirates they are. The few brave (or foolish) looters willing to speak to the press more or less said the stolen goods were “owed to them.” How and why so many rioters bought into this same nihilistic logic is the question that still begs an answer.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Even more damaging for Cameron, the rioting put his own brand of modern conservativism on trial. The Conservative Party’s instinctive response to a crisis of public order is to criminalize the rioters and enhance the repressive powers of the police, as the Thatcher government did in the 1980s. Cameron’s reaction was no exception: In a speech the week after the unrest, he stated that the riots were not about race, government cuts, or poverty but about behavior. In other words, he blamed the rioting on rioters’ lack of values and argued that the proper government response would be to punish crime more severely and stop incentivizing irresponsibility through the welfare system. […] Cameron invited the courts to pass “exemplary sentences” to rioters, leading to some draconian punishments for minor opportunistic crimes (an engineering student received a six-month sentence for stealing a pack of bottled water from a looted shop). Senior Liberal Democrats publicly rebuked Cameron for interfering with the work of the judiciary and for the disproportionate sentences the courts handed out in some cases. Although the coalition is not at immediate risk of collapse, the response to the riots underlined the very real philosophical differences between the parties, with the Liberals prepared to prioritize individual rights and social justice over law and order and retributive justice. MORE