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Demonising the young won’t heal our cities, writes Laurie Penny

It's vital that we resist the easy story of "us" and "them".

The resilience of Londoners approaches cultural cliché. Just up from Camden Lock, on the morning after the worst night of civil unrest in living memory, people were going back and forth with brooms and bin bags, looking for something left to clean. The glass, debris and burning bins from the previous night's riots had already been swept away by the first eager Londoners to arrive. Five women, some white, some Asian, were holding large pink signs reading "free hugs". They had already been to Brixton.

I accepted a cuddle. It was that sort of morning.Across London, an enormous clean-up campaign swept through the shattered boroughs, organised over the same social networks that rioters had used to co-ordinate looting and arson. It quickly became clear that social media, contrary to initial panicked reports, was morally neutral in this crisis. In Clapham Junction, hundreds of people stood together and raised their brooms. Some had come from across the city to show support. The website that had been set up only hours earlier to bring together cleaning campaigns crashed due to a surge of traffic from volunteers.

Elsewhere, stories of solidarity were filtering through over the feeds: of local Jewish and Muslim youths banding together to protect a Stamford Hill synagogue from rioters, of anarchist groups in Hackney putting out fires where the emergency services were stretched. People called their friends to check that they were safe and opened their homes to strangers who had no way of crossing town. This, commentators began to assure each other, was the "real Britain". As I write, no member of the beleaguered cabinet has yet dared to use the term "Big Society".

The narrative being encouraged by most politicians is one of social division: of "us" and "them", of "real" British citizens mopping up after the "mindless" young hooligans.

Party leaders vow to punish looters who, they insist, are engaging in a “pure criminality" with no social precedent. Right-wing commentators pointed the finger at multiculturalism, single parents - anything except austerityand unemployment. Twitter was alight with racist indignation on Tuesday morning, and some people discussing the clean-up urged volunteers to "sweep away the scum". News outlets trying to explain the chaos focused on social media rather than social breakdown.

New broom needed

A clean-up operation is one thing, but vigilantism on the streets is quite another. The impulse to defend one's community is absolutely understandable, and citizens cannot be faulted for organising to patrol their neighbourhoods against arson attacks, but reports of gangs of EDL members yelling racist slogans at young black men in Eltham are extremely worrying. So are the professed liberals calling for water cannon and rubber bullets to be deployed.

Those using the various manifestations of this "fightback" to confirm their own prejudices would do well to remember how the Clapham broom brigade reacted when Boris Johnson arrived to congratulate them on their hard work. Shouts of "this is your fault" and "how was your holiday, Boris?" greeted the mayor, who had only just returned after three days of rioting to "take charge".

He did so by making helpers clear the area and pause their clean-up operation while he posed, broom in hand, for press photos. He then put down the broom and made a hasty exit from a crowd murmuring about closed community centres.

As panicked politicians with little understanding of social disorder fight to reclaim the narrative, it is vital that we resist the easy story of "us"
and "them".Because the truth is that it's all "us". The disorder will continue until we acknowledge that the young people who rampaged through Manchester, Liverpool, Brixton, Tottenham and 50 boroughs of London are as much a part of the "real Britain" as those who nobly came out the next morning to clear the debris from their trashed high streets. The language of "true Brits" defending themselves against a feral underclass is precisely the language of social division that predicated these riots.

Civil unrest is a frightening thing, but more racism, more violence and more young people being demonised will not heal our cities.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.