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8 August 2011

“Why did the Tottenham riots happen?“ Let’s all guess

Discussion of the riots is dominated by guesswork, and coloured by the same old agendas.

By Steven Baxter

There’s been a riot, I understand. A riot or two. Some local shop-smashing and this and that. And for some dripping wet liberal idiocy reasons — call me a fool for ever trying to understand things, rather than just shout about them at the top of my voice — I want to try and work out why it happened. I am just a person, sitting in a not uncomfortable chair, many miles from the sound of breaking glass and the smell of burning car. I know nothing of these things, having grown up in (relatively) leafy suburbia. But I’d like to know.

Is it wrong to want to understand? I can’t see rioters from my window, but I should like to get some idea of why this is happening. I can guess. We can all make guesses. But I feel sufficiently distant from these events, in so many ways, that I don’t think my guess could be anywhere close to the truth. Yet all I seem to read, and see, and hear, is guesswork. They did it because of this. They did it because of that. They did it because of this, and that. I wonder how many of the guesses are close, and how many are just long-range salvoes to drive the same old agendas.

I’m not going to make the mistake of having an opinion about these things. Having an opinion about these things invariably leads to arguments. If you’re on the political left, as I am (although I wonder sometimes), you always run the risk of getting into trouble with others on the left if you try and have an opinion about these things. Particularly if you’re not the right kind of person to have an opinion.

You’re not allowed to have an opinion if you are one of the educated liberal metropolitan elite, for example. And even though I live on a council estate and am currently on Job Seekers Allowance, I am still very much doomed to be seen as a horrible elitist who patronises the working class, whom I don’t understand, whose struggles I shall forever be detached from, in my lofty elitist perch. How dare I try and think about things? And so I try to look as embarrassed as possible when discussing these matters.

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If I were on the political right, of course, I have a feeling it’d be absolutely acceptable for me to have a bash at trying to guess these things out. I could quite chirpily make a hundred and a half assumptions, despite not knowing anything about it, and no-one would bat an eyelid. Look at those people, I could say, with a nudge-nudge here and a wink-wink there about their ethnicity, look at those criminals, being criminal because they’re criminals. I could point and laugh and say “silly old leftists trying to defend them”, cleverly pretending that “try to work out why something is happening, while not condoning it” is exactly the same as “defending”. I could even staple on a hasty “Well of course I was brought up in a plastic bag underneath Blackfriars Bridge but I never robbed a pair of trainers from Foot Locker, so I’m just better than them”, and it’d be game, set and match.

For me, though, it’s the usual hand-wringing struggle. I have no idea why people are rioting. I couldn’t possibly tell you, and a great deal of the coverage I’m reading enlightens me so little that I’m often left with more questions than answers. Perhaps the answer is that no-one knows. Perhaps there are some people who know, but we don’t hear enough from them to find out for ourselves. It might be something to do with the economy, or something to do with it being August and relatively warm outdoors, or something to do with a feeling of disconnect between young people and their government, or just criminality for criminality’s sake — or it might be none of these things. I can certainly find people telling me what I might want to hear, depending on what that might be.

But as someone who actually wants to be informed, who really wants to know, I am left as ignorant as ever.

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