Thursday, 11 August 2011

When the streets of England exploded

It’s touching to have received messages of sympathy from abroad, even if at least one of them was a little supercilious, during the last four days of – what shall we call them? – troubles on the streets of British cities.

Firstly, let me say that I know exactly as much about them as anyone who reads a paper or watches news about Britain abroad. My commute to work takes me nowhere near any of the affected areas so my total exposure to the troubles was through the headlines in the papers of my fellow travellers and the lurid descriptions on the TV news.

Funnily enough, I’ve been in this situation before – when you’re actually in a ‘trouble spot’ there’s every likelihood that you’ll notice absolutely nothing about it. One such incident was on 5 February 1992, when five people were murdered in a betting shop on the Ormeau Road in Belfast; within an hour of the incident I was in a taxi that took me at one point within a mile of the place, and it wasn’t until I got to the airport and saw the news that I realised that the incident had even taken place. It was all a bit spooky.

Secondly, let’s come back to that question of the name for these troubles. One word that I’ve heard no-one pronounce in comments has been ‘revolution’.

Certainly there was nothing like revolution going on here – no strikes, no armed action, no serious or sustained threat to the status quo.

But a word that has been used, a lot, is ‘rioting’. But doesn’t the word ‘riot’ suggest some kind of political content? Well, at least if it’s not being used for rather a good party.

Whatever else was going on these last few days, it certainly wasn’t political.

Those lads weren’t setting fire to cars and debating the relative merits of David Cameron or Ed Milliband as national leaders; as they put their bricks through shop windows, they weren’t comparing the relative merits of quantitative easing and fiscal measures as ways of stimulating the economy.

No, they were just looting.

The fact that rather a lot of young people suddenly decided to go out looting has led to a bit of soul-searching. Only a bit, mind: it quickly led to identifying a few usual suspects and blaming them. The police were slow to react. Society is sick. Parenting is to pot.

Now, it’s quite possible that parenting is terrible. I'm ready to believe that any parenting outside my own family and those of my relatives and friends is pretty hopeless. To be honest, I'm not that sure about my relatives and friends. But did parenting really suddenly take a huge turn for the worse just recently? Why exactly did these badly brought up kids, so similar to the badly brought up kids of the last decade who never took to the streets, suddenly decide to turn into looters just now?

Perhaps it’s the other explanations that we have to turn to. Perhaps Britain is a sick society. But you’ve probably all seen the photograph of Monika Konczyk jumping for her life from her flat in a burning building in Croydon. The friends who’d gathered below to catch her had forced their way through the police lines to get there; policemen joined them to help.

Monika Konczyk being rescued: what's sick about that bit of society?
Did you see the photographs of the people who turned out with their brooms in Clapham to help clear their streets the day after the looting there? A sick society? Well, hardly. Those two incidents show humans behaving in just the way I would wish us all to behave. Some people behaved badly, but others behaved well. A great many behaved well.
Brooms to help the clear up in Clapham
And as for the police, they've avoided killing anyone and the situation is back under control. It took three or four days. Seems pretty impressive as me.

So that leaves still looking for the answer to the question of why did it happen now, why did these particular young people take part in such mindless criminality?

Commentators have pointed out that these are the worst street disturbances for thirty years. And maybe in that statement, unbeknown to them, lies the answer to the question.

Who was in office thirty years ago? Why, the deeply divisive government of Margaret Thatcher. It deliberately pursued policies of disenfranchising the poor, the young outside a narrow circle of privilege, and ethnic minorities. And the disturbances that started thirty years ago went on sporadically over the next decade.

And who’s in office today? Why Thatcher’s heirs, David Cameron and his cronies.

I rest my case.

Finally, what about the looting itself? Things have all gone quiet. And why? A lot of police have turned out, and that’s helped. But also the weather has broken. It’s been raining. Kids don’t like to go out in the rain.

See what I mean about not being real riots, and certainly not a revolution? Can you see Lenin saying ‘hey, it’s chucking it down out there. Let’s stay inside and have a few drinks instead.’

So without wanting to belittle the achievement of the police, let's not understate the contribution made by that most reliable of Britain’s characteristics.

Yep, our lousy weather came to our rescue.


Awoogamuffin said...

I agree - and as for the police, I far prefer people complain about them being too lax than the opposite - don't want more kettling now, do we?

David Beeson said...

Interestingly, they showed great restraint - and it appals me that many people take the opposite point of view from yours, criticising them for not intervening harder