Misreading the riot act, the ghosts of 1981 and Bullingdon boys at play

With the full effects of spending cuts still to be felt, many commentators deny they can be connected with the riots. But young people, though they may not dutifully follow Newsnight, keep up with the news like anybody else. This is the period during which lobby groups - for the police, health-workers, teachers, the arts, and so on - turn up the volume to warn of civilisation-threatening consequences if they are not spared the hardest hits. The middle classes scream of struggles with mortgages and school fees. Inner-city youths lack organised and influential lobbyists. Setting fire to buildings is probably the best means available of putting their case. A riot, as Martin Luther King observed, is the language of the unheard.

Nor am I greatly impressed with those who argue that the underclass, rotted by generous welfare payments and led astray by indulgent schoolteachers, is uniquely lacking in moral compass. I see no ethical distinction between how the financial services industry loots its customers and how youths looted London shops. Both grab what they can when they can. Both lack the sense of responsibility for which the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, recently called. Bankers do not use outright physical violence. Why would they, when they can loot from the comfort of their offices without fear of arrest?

Sound of silence

Some commentators claim these riots eclipse 1981, when Brixton (south London), Handsworth (Birmingham), Chapeltown (Leeds) and Toxteth (Liverpool) went up in flames, and significant disturbances occurred in other cities. But though Tottenham, like Brixton and Toxteth, began with an encounter between a black man and the police, in 1981 there was a more single-minded determination to confront authority. This year's riots, as befits the modern climate, seem mostly about extended free shopping. They also seem to end more quickly: the Toxteth riot lasted nine days.

Above all, nothing can exceed the shock of summer 1981. These were the first riots on the British mainland that involved substantial destruction of property and the wide use of petrol bombs and barricades. The political classes were seemingly unaware of problems between the police and young blacks or of how rising unemployment created hopelessness and disaffection in the inner cities. If they had listened to pop music, they might have been better prepared: two hits that summer were the Specials' "Ghost Town" and the Jam's "Funeral Pyre". Adele's music offers no similar clues.

Thrills and spills

Explanations for urban mayhem, whether in 1981 or 2011, leave out what may be the most important cause: a riot, though terrifying for many, can be thrilling to young people. The sense of controlling the streets, and, for example, forcing diners at a Michelin-starred Notting Hill restaurant to cower in the cellar, is intoxicating. Social media, alongside 24-hour rolling news, have greatly enhanced the excitement, allowing one to follow the action as if it were a football or cricket match. Rioting has become a spectator sport to which one can contribute videos and "I am there" tweets. Young people set great store by "respect" and, on learning that trouble had broken out in Tottenham, youths elsewhere probably feared losing face if they failed to put on their own show.

London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, could no doubt attest to the joys of uninhibited destruction from memories of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club, notorious for trashing restaurants. He would point out, I suppose, that club members paid, in cash, for any damage. In our society, only the rich can normally afford the greatest pleasures, including those of youthful vandalism.

Loughton out

Even in the sleepiest towns and suburbs, young people - and quite a few older ones - want to share in the historic events, without necessarily taking part in lawbreaking. So a single broken shop window, which could happen any night of the week in any high street, gets reported as a riot. As Manchester burned, trouble was also reported from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which also made the list of riot hotspots in 1981 when a single petrol bomb was thrown at a police car and failed to go off.

So, what counts as a riot? According to the Public Order Act 1986, you need a minimum of 12 people whose conduct "would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety". That appears to qualify leafy Buckhurst Hill, Essex, where 13 youths were arrested for smashing a clothes shop window. In nearby Loughton, where I live quietly and unfashionably, there were rumours of mounted police in the high road. However, I could see no evidence of riot the following morning, not even a horse dropping. Perhaps unusually continent horses were deployed.

Normal service

What explains the muted response to the latest financial crisis? At times like this, newspapers normally run features asking, "Is this end of capitalism?" Three years ago, after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Mail screamed that "free-market capitalism lies shredded", while the Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was resigned to "the nationalisation of large chunks of the western economy". It was, he added, "too grave a crisis for ideological preening".

Then, we were being prepared for the use of public money to bail out the private sector. This time, the crisis is primarily about governments, which are required to privatise just about everything and cut spending, except on necessary things such as assisting bankers again and supporting the armaments industry. There is, therefore, no crisis of capitalism and normal ideological preening can be resumed.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.