It was, I suppose, inevitable that media comment in the wake of Tottenham and other recent riots would present them as a direct result of specific contemporary conditions. A typical example is provided by Melanie Phillips in today’s Mail, who identifies it, without citing any particular evidence, as the “outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value”. However, even some of those commentators locating the cause elsewhere implicate entirely modern phenomena: the pressure of mass-media consumerism, for example.
Unfortunately for this kind of analysis, there is plenty of evidence that British society has always tended to bubble over into violence, riot and looting, irrespective of the shape of that society at the time. The idea that the presence of “basic social value[s]” prevented such behaviour in the past does not stand up to scrutiny. In June 1940 a combination of wartime xenophobia and privation led to an outbreak of looting, burning and destruction aimed at Italian businesses in cities across England and Scotland. This is today almost forgotten, but its wartime context does not excuse the crossing of boundaries it represented.
Riots and disturbances were common enough in the mediaeval period, often breaking out into armed insurrection. But even the supposedly compact and ordered society of the 18th and 19th centuries was not immune. 1778’s Gordon Riots were amongst the most violently destructive in London’s history; they were triggered by a protest against the softening of anti-Catholic legislation, but were fanned by a dire economic situation, itself caused by Britain exhausting itself in a series of foreign wars. Lurid accounts exist of rioters setting fire to buildings and drinking themselves into a stupor. Even young children were swept up in events, subsequently undergoing the same treatment as adults in the usual response of the time, as several were hung afterwards: “I never saw children cry so,” recorded a bystander.
Of course, the fact that riots have occurred in all times and in all kinds of society has failed to prevent attempts to argue the contrary. The Mail also quoted Desmond Morris, stating that humans are “programmed” to live in villages, and that rioting is an urban phenomenon – a different facet of the narrative that such violence is fundamentally a modern issue.
Perhaps Morris has never heard of the “Swing” Riots of 1830, in which agricultural workers burnt barns, hayricks, threshing machines and rural workhouses across Southern England and the Midlands in a protest against the increasing financial pressure on the rural poor: again, executions and transportations followed in their wake, while as with the Gordon Riots, the media of the time raised the spectre of foreign agitation. It was difficult to admit the thought that normal British subjects might, under particular conditions and fuelled by adrenaline, completely lose their heads.
Those familiar with the history of Wales will know of the Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s and 1840s, another fundamentally rural phenomenon. Groups of men, often dressed as women or masked to disguise themselves, attacked and destroyed tollgates in protest against a continuing squeeze on the incomes of farmers and smallholders. In this case, most of the rioters were never caught, perhaps because there was widespread agreement with their actions; “Rebecca” became well-known in Welsh history as an example of standing up to English economic influence.
The incidents that triggered these riots were often as widely different as the areas in which they occurred. Even so, there is one unifying factor: economic pressure. All took place against a background of falling incomes, increasing costs, and rising resentment. Moreover, the response – prior to the 20th century, at least – was always the same. In previous centuries, we sent in the army; men were transported for life; we hung children for joining in looting; yet riots continued, despite the inevitability of punishment, because little was done to mitigate the cause along with attempting to restore order. It would be good to think that we, as a society, have progressed since that point.