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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.