British society has always tended to bubble over into violence

Those who pin the blame for the riots on contemporary conditions alone are missing the point.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that media comment in the wake of Tottenham and other recent riots would present them as a direct result of specific contemporary conditions. A typical example is provided by Melanie Phillips in today's Mail, who identifies it, without citing any particular evidence, as the "outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value". However, even some of those commentators locating the cause elsewhere implicate entirely modern phenomena: the pressure of mass-media consumerism, for example.

Unfortunately for this kind of analysis, there is plenty of evidence that British society has always tended to bubble over into violence, riot and looting, irrespective of the shape of that society at the time. The idea that the presence of "basic social value[s]" prevented such behaviour in the past does not stand up to scrutiny. In June 1940 a combination of wartime xenophobia and privation led to an outbreak of looting, burning and destruction aimed at Italian businesses in cities across England and Scotland. This is today almost forgotten, but its wartime context does not excuse the crossing of boundaries it represented.

Riots and disturbances were common enough in the mediaeval period, often breaking out into armed insurrection. But even the supposedly compact and ordered society of the 18th and 19th centuries was not immune. 1778's Gordon Riots were amongst the most violently destructive in London's history; they were triggered by a protest against the softening of anti-Catholic legislation, but were fanned by a dire economic situation, itself caused by Britain exhausting itself in a series of foreign wars. Lurid accounts exist of rioters setting fire to buildings and drinking themselves into a stupor. Even young children were swept up in events, subsequently undergoing the same treatment as adults in the usual response of the time, as several were hung afterwards: "I never saw children cry so," recorded a bystander.

Of course, the fact that riots have occurred in all times and in all kinds of society has failed to prevent attempts to argue the contrary. The Mail also quoted Desmond Morris, stating that humans are "programmed" to live in villages, and that rioting is an urban phenomenon - a different facet of the narrative that such violence is fundamentally a modern issue.

Perhaps Morris has never heard of the "Swing" Riots of 1830, in which agricultural workers burnt barns, hayricks, threshing machines and rural workhouses across Southern England and the Midlands in a protest against the increasing financial pressure on the rural poor: again, executions and transportations followed in their wake, while as with the Gordon Riots, the media of the time raised the spectre of foreign agitation. It was difficult to admit the thought that normal British subjects might, under particular conditions and fuelled by adrenaline, completely lose their heads.

Those familiar with the history of Wales will know of the Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s and 1840s, another fundamentally rural phenomenon. Groups of men, often dressed as women or masked to disguise themselves, attacked and destroyed tollgates in protest against a continuing squeeze on the incomes of farmers and smallholders. In this case, most of the rioters were never caught, perhaps because there was widespread agreement with their actions; "Rebecca" became well-known in Welsh history as an example of standing up to English economic influence.

The incidents that triggered these riots were often as widely different as the areas in which they occurred. Even so, there is one unifying factor: economic pressure. All took place against a background of falling incomes, increasing costs, and rising resentment. Moreover, the response - prior to the 20th century, at least - was always the same. In previous centuries, we sent in the army; men were transported for life; we hung children for joining in looting; yet riots continued, despite the inevitability of punishment, because little was done to mitigate the cause along with attempting to restore order. It would be good to think that we, as a society, have progressed since that point.

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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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