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