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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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