Riots and randomness: the search for an explanation

There is no consensus about how to classify what went on, but "randomness" is unlikely to be the ans

Although Tower Hamlets got off relatively lightly compared to other parts of the capital like Croydon, Hackney and Haringey, it was not spared from last week's disorders. A few days ago, I paid a visit to Roman Road in Tower Hamlets to see for myself where looting had taken place. One shop, Zee & Co, part of a small South Asian-owned retail chain which stocks designer clothing, had around £600,000 worth of stock removed by around 100 young people, mainly male but some female. So far, one 15-year-old caught on CCTV has been arrested and can expect a custodial sentence when he attends the youth court next month.

Why did this event and others like it happen elsewhere in London and other towns and cities in England? This is the $64,000 question that everyone from politicians and social commentators want the answer to. I think part of the puzzlement is that so far there has been no consensus about how to classify what went on. For example, it obviously wasn't a race riot in the conventional sense of either people from different ethnic groups battling it out on the streets, or a specific ethnic group fighting with the police.

Nevertheless, there was a racial component -- the death of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police marksmen in Tottenham -- which set off the disorders. That said, it is extremely doubtful whether all of those young people -- white, black and Asian -- caught up in the looting in Roman Road or many other parts of the UK would have known much or indeed anything at all about this incident.

But the riots certainly had something to do with the acquisition of high and low value goods -- the Guardian's veteran political commentator Michael White dubbed them "retail riots". Whatever else this and similar incidents replicated in the capital and elsewhere in England (but not, interestingly, in Scotland or Wales) mean it certainly demonstrates the centrality of consumption in people's lives in an advanced economy like the UK.

Taking a slightly different line, two academic commentators, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, writing in the Guardian, very sensibly suggested that it is important to distinguish between incidents that spark unrest, and underlying causes which make it likely. Analysing data on unrest from 28 European countries between 1919 and 2009, and in 11 Latin American countries since 1937 they conclude that there is a strong statistical correlation "between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest". They end the piece with a warning that although social unrest is very hard to predict in terms of timing, things can go dramatically wrong, and the Weimar Republic, Germany's first experiment with democracy, is cited as an example.

On the other hand, historian Leif Jerram, writing on Oxford University Press's blog, argues that disorder in urban areas has been a semi-regular occurrence. He cites gang violence in Glasgow and Manchester between the wars, the anti-Semitic riots in Liverpool in the post-Second World War period, the moral panic about violence between Mods and Rockers in British seaside towns in the 1960s, and so on. Jerram then goes a step further and suggests that terrible as the recent disorders have been, "maybe they're just one of those random things that happen in all sorts of societies from time to time". He adds:

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome.

I quite like the idea of "randomness" as an explanation of some things that happen in the city. However, in the case of recent rioting and looting in some parts of the UK, I don't think this is the place to start. Far better to assume, as Ponticelli and Voth argue, that there are causes and then try and find out what they are.

For example, we know that most looters were young people -- although the behaviour of older people caught up in the disorders also requires explanation -- so therefore it seems sensible to look at the behaviour of those involved in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and social class. My guess also is that explanations will vary to a greater or lesser extent even within different parts of London -- that is, there will be interesting differences between what happened in Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Tower Hamlets. But I would be very surprised if there were no explanation, and that randomness had to be invoked as the major explanatory variable.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem), Roehampton University.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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