Cameron returns to London after a night of nihilism

Scenes of destruction in London as riots spread to Birmingham and Liverpool.

When Nick Clegg warned of "Greek-style unrest" if a government with only a slim mandate brought in fierce spending cuts, he was widely derided. Not in conservative Britain, they said. But after last night's events, his words now look like an understatement.

In truth, however, it is spurious to draw any connection between the cuts (most of which have not been made) and the nihilistic destruction (as Ken Livingstone rather unwisely did last night) witnessed in London and other cities. In Croydon, a 144-year-old furniture shop was destroyed by fire, with nearby homes also engulfed. Marc Reeves, the owner of the store, later tweeted: "That shop in Croydon is on a street that bears its name: Reeves Corner. Established by my gt gt grandfather in 1867. Now gone." In Enfield, a Sony distribution centre was set on fire, triggering a huge blaze that, six hours on, is still raging.

But amid the destruction there were some heartening scenes. In Hackney, the location of much of the worst rioting, Kurds (some of them former Peshmerga fighters) and Turks bravely defended their shops and restaurants with bats and sticks. A true English Defence League, as one friend put it to me. In a clip that has already gone viral, a West Indian matriarch from the same borough confronted the rioters and ordered them to stop.

By the early evening, however, the rioting had spread to Birmingham, with widespread looting around the Bull Ring shopping centre, and an empty police station set on fire. In Liverpool, cars were set alight as police officers were pelted with weapons, with similar acts later witnessed in Bristol and Nottingham.

As he will know, David Cameron now faces the biggest test of his leadership to date. Like Boris Johnson and Theresa May, he wisely cut short his holiday and returned to London this morning. For Labour, Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman did the same as several MPs called for Parliament to be recalled. In the short-term, we can expect the debate to focus on the police, who, by their own admission were overwhelmed last night. As the destruction mounted, there were calls, including from liberals, for the police to use water cannon (which would have to be imported from Northern Ireland) and rubber bullets, even for the army to be called in. But speaking this morning, May has already ruled out the use of cannon: "The way we police in Britain is not with water cannon. The way we police in Britain is on the streets and with the communities."

For now, an odd sort of calm reigns as the great clean up begins. But whether or not the rioting continues tonight, the country demands leadership. Will our politicians provide it?

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia