Inside Story

England on trial

Four days and nights of riotous disorder are a potent argument for social repair. But lack of agreement on fundamentals could soon prove fatal to the chances, says David Hayes

David Hayes 16 August 2011 2635 words

Prime Minister David Cameron’s 11 August speech to parliament on the recent riots in Britain, screening in a London coffee shop. Andy Rain/EPA

IT IS a little over a week since the start of an opportunistic four-day summer carnival of violent looting and burning by fired-up gangs of kids and young adults across parts of urban England. Everything about it and all that followed seems to have passed with the speed of light: the gratification, the outrage, the exculpation, the news, the networking, the messaging, the inquests, the broadcasts, the punditry, the debates – none was ever so instant, nor so deluging. But could this become true too of the forgetting?

The question sounds counterintuitive, even a touch cynical, when the events are still so fresh. But following its thread could also be a way to anticipate what the autumn rains may bring, and where – more widely – the country that incubated this social explosion may be heading.

Every spasm of major unrest has a spark. In this case, it was the shooting dead in the north London district of Tottenham on 4 August of a twenty-nine-year-old man, Mark Duggan, by police who were trailing the taxi he was in. At an early stage, the body that investigates such incidents stated that there had been an exchange of fire (by the time this was corrected, on the fourth day of the rioting, it was too late to make any difference). On the Saturday afternoon, two days after his death, Duggan’s friends and members of his family gathered outside the local police station in peaceful protest, asking that a senior officer come and talk to them. As they waited, the crowd became larger and its frustration grew. Amid rising tension, in the absence of any significant police presence, and aided by text messaging that brought people from other parts of London (and beyond) into the area, groups began to pillage and burn local shops.

By the Sunday morning the enormous scale of destruction, here and elsewhere in London, was revealed. Among the shops gutted in Tottenham High Road – the kind of shabby, friendly, ethnically diverse street of (mainly) just-surviving people that exists all over the city – were a carpet shop, a jeweller’s, a post office, and a barbershop whose eighty-nine-year-old owner had worked there for forty-one years. In the Croydon area of south London, a family-owned furniture store that had been a street-corner landmark since the 1860s was a shell. But as the eruptions moved across town, and north to parts of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Nottingham (as well as lesser centres), it was notable that the assailants were also targeting specific low-end chain-store brands. Welcome to a world of “flash-looting” and “shopping with violence” from a mobile task-force by no means all adolescent (the average age of those prosecuted is twenty-three), unemployed or working-class.

A camera-shot of a woman in silhouette jumping from her flat above the Croydon store (into the arms of rescuers) conveys vividly the dangers of these frightening days. In a sense, it seems miraculous that only six people died (including three men in a hit-and-run attack, one shot in a car, and one beaten while attempting to stamp out a fire near his home). But many mental wounds will take longer to heal than the dozens of charred buildings, the costs to those who have lost homes and livelihoods will be great, and the burdens on those found guilty (of the more than 1800 arrested at the time of writing) will weigh on them for years to come.

THE INITIAL rioting exposed an absence of leadership. The oddly hesitant police reaction was matched by a governing elite on holiday overseas and (in the case of the prime minister, David Cameron, and his political rival and fellow Conservative, London’s mayor Boris Johnson) reluctant to return until expediency made that essential. In their absence, it was parliamentarians from two of the London areas most wounded – David Lammy of Tottenham and Diane Abbott of Hackney – who voiced the collective dismay. By the time the lower house of parliament was reconvened for a day on 11 August, a more vigorous police stance had helped contain the violence, allowing the people’s tribunes space to offer their diagnoses and (in some cases) call for more draconian action.

The crisis is a testing one for a prime minister who has sailed through fifteen months at the head of government without ever appearing encumbered by ideas, consistency of vision, or even the cares of office. In its way the performance of Cameron – who is distrusted both by many on his party’s right and by the influential Tory newspapers (the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail) – is impressive. His air of command, smooth exterior and declaratory rhetoric have often seemed to fit what British people now expect of their prime minister, having tired of his model, Tony Blair, and failing ever to warm to Gordon Brown. But, as his party critics are warning, the ability to maintain order on the streets is a fundamental requirement of any Conservative leader. He is in no immediate danger, but a new urban cataclysm or its equivalent could – even more than a prolongation of the current bleak economic indicators – extinguish any residual aura of promise.

The Labour opposition leader and former energy minister, Ed Miliband, has had an uncertain year since his narrow and unexpected victory over his brother David following the party’s defeat in the May 2010 election. But, as Frank Bongiorno wrote last week in Inside Story, the furious criticism that engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid over the paper’s previous phone-hacking culture blew Miliband some favourable publicity, and his measured stance on the riots has consolidated it. Here too there are few certainties in a fluid political environment, and Miliband is a long way from building the kind of momentum that carried “New Labour” to power in 1997; but he can no longer be easily portrayed as a stop-gap leader.

If the overall effect of the destructive paroxysm was to suspend routine political hostilities, the brief truce, always fragile, is now over. Cameron is seeking to end a messy spat over his early criticism of police tactics and produce a legislative agenda that can meet the challenge of the riots’ “pure criminality”; Miliband, careful to focus on supporting the police and sympathising with the victims, insists on the disfiguring social context of the violence. The contrast will frame the coming political debate, but far more important is the prime minister’s refusal so far to heed Labour’s demand for an official public inquiry into the events – a sine qua non (if by itself no guarantee) of any lasting reparation and progress.

THE UNOFFICIAL public inquiry is meanwhile careering ahead. The media – print, broadcast, new and social – are a cacophony of opinion on every aspect of “the riots”: perpetrators and victims, lawless behaviour and police tactics, social contexts and political implications, historical precedents and technological innovations.

The sheer wealth of response, which both 24/7 broadcast media and the social tools make ever more prolific, is impressive and daunting in equal measure. But when vivid reportage becomes commentary, the most striking single feature is just how much these incidents have from the start been read, filtered, processed and packaged to confirm pre-existing worldviews. The intellectual-political tribes of left and right are ever more fixed, exclusive and impermeable in English public life, a reality that internet-era effects (the “filter bubble” and the “daily me”) intensify. In this landscape, and amid the wider lonely-crowd culture, the individual’s hunger to speak and longing to join (and impress) the gang frame the dominant style of the post-riot – and indeed, post-everything – discourse: driven, consciously excluding, often jeering, preaching-to-the-choir, know-everything-already, and thus tending to the hyperbolic and extreme.

So the left (which instinctively sees violence from below, however degrading, as a distorted expression of the demand for social justice) blames a blocked society, a culture of unaccountability, welfare cuts, a feral elite, unemployment, attacks on multiculturalism, extreme inequality, neo-liberalism, regressive family policies, Margaret Thatcher, educational apartheid, a lack of rights, hostility to immigrants, censorship, excessive police powers, endemic racism – and the right. The right (which instinctively sees violence from below, whatever its motive, as a threat to the state from subversive elements that must be repressed) blames a broken society, a culture of entitlement, welfare dependency, a feral underclass, lack of incentives to work, multiculturalism, economic reward without merit, state patronage, the destruction of the traditional family, Tony Blair, the failures of progressive education, a profusion of rights, immigration, political correctness, the evisceration of the police, official anti-racism – and the left.

True, there are very many in either camp or none who offer acute (and often anguished) analysis which eschews point-scoring and tries to speak to – and thus help create – a non-sectarian public. Among them are the novelist Howard Jacobson’s criticism of “impatient adversariality” (in the Independent), Deborah Orr’s call for an inclusive approach (in the Guardian), and Tom Chivers’s emphasis on the need for evidence-based guidance (in the Telegraph). But the governing atmosphere of polarisation is stifling, arguably even another symptom of the very social malaise that so many commentators (and commenters) strain every intellectual sinew to denounce.

To live inside this bubble (as producer, consumer, or both) can be exhilarating as well as rewarding. Such temptations, however, also blind the more vocal participants – who share a deep need never to be surprised by anything – to the larger deformity they are helping to fuel. In this sense it is not too early to ask whether the aforementioned forgetting is already under way. After all, could the reaction to England’s riots be so thunderous that it stampedes over them – extinguishing the chance to look at and learn from everything that happened?

The case for a “yes” is this. When left and right alike instantly use the riots as a vehicle to express their generic discontents – and to restate their respective, preordained, political schemas about what is wrong with England tout court – the damage is twofold. First, they push the events themselves further from view. Second, by defining the problem the events reveal in such wholesale terms they make any conceivable improvements look frustratingly partial and inadequate: nothing can change until everything changes. From both sides, ambition, abstraction, absolutism and apocalyptism combine to make progress definitionally impossible.

The riots alone cannot bear this weight. All the problems and issues being identified as their source long predate them. The heavy linguistic armoury deployed by the opposed political thought-blocs leaves no space for the complex particularity that an intimate, honest facing of the base reality of these events would surely bring. At their best, their approaches generate insightful and heartfelt accounting; but their reductive social prescription – in its closure to surprise, and to anything outside or other – builds in evasion and guarantees disappointment.

If this is correct, it reinforces the need for a formal, comprehensive, public inquiry – something that all current responses should focus on securing. What is required is a detailed, granular, searching investigation of all aspects of the week of 4–11 August, from the moment of Mark Duggan’s shooting: an empirical sociology of urban England at a particular moment (one that takes account, too, of conditions where trouble might have happened but didn’t). Without it, these horrifying events will fall to posthumous politicisation, and the same newspapers now proclaiming that Britain has “changed forever” will soon be talking of a “missed opportunity.”

Before it is too late, everyone – rioters, looters, victims, police, spectators, immigrants, natives, politicians, experts, people who intervened to heal divisions or save lives – needs the opportunity to speak and be heard. That is a project around which all involved can in principle cohere. Perhaps it alone can reclaim the complex truths and potential choices buried in the calamity from (to adapt E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase) the instant and selective appropriation of posterity.

Yet it must be acknowledged that even with an inquiry, the chances of any such change-making aftermath to the riots are small. The instruments of British governance are unsuited to coherent, sharp and strategic thinking and policy. The political tribes are more interested in talking to themselves and fulminating against their opponents than in contributing to any inclusive national project. The social tribes in England’s highly stratified and segmented order are offered no incentive to share more than membership of a notional consumer-citizenry. Perhaps above all, there is a palpable vacuum where the accepted, taken-for-granted notion of an overarching public interest has to be to make any lasting regeneration possible.

THE ROOTS of this absence go deep and wide. If it can be filled rather than compensated for – and much in modern English society can indeed be understood as a form of compensation for the lack of a sense of public interest – then the starting point should be with another absence: that of England itself.

The use of “England” rather than “Britain” in this article reflects the fact that the unrest was confined to that country (as indeed was the case during earlier large-scale outbreaks in, for example, 1981, 1985 and 2001). Scotland has its singular problems of violence, including (in the west) soccer-related sectarian hate-crime, but tends not to witness disturbance of the kind sparked in Tottenham.

But there is reason to go further, and draw from this social geography a broader lesson. In the post-devolution United Kingdom – since Northern Ireland achieved its assembly in 1998, and Scotland its parliament and Wales its assembly in 1999 – England is ever more anomalously the missing political nation in this state. This has been widely noted and much lamented, though only at the fringes acted upon (as in the noxious activism of the far-right English Defence League).

If there is any possibility that the riots can become a genuinely cathartic moment, it may depend on the success of the effort to make England as proper and natural a ground of democratic conversation and action as the other components of the United Kingdom. It has to happen at some point. Scotland’s direction of movement is towards greater autonomy, whether or not that ends in full independence. England is being obliged to collude in a process that greatly affects it, but without political voice or agency. An active choice to claim both would create an infusion of national confidence, supply the foundation of a sense of public interest, and (inter alia) improve its ability to address the realities of the riots on its territory. If not now, when?

There are obstacles. England is riven by class and social difference (though this is the case in most countries); more seriously, it is afraid of itself and what looking too hard in the mirror might reveal – perhaps the greatest barrier to change. It also lacks trusted leadership, and the tragedy of its middle class (to adapt the equally famous phrase attributed to the post-1945 Labour foreign minister, Ernest Bevin) is the terrible poverty of its imagination.

But England is a nation, and one whose political invisibility is increasingly unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable. Make a forensic public inquiry on the English riots of August 2011 one ingredient of the case for the reclamation of political Englishness, and there is an agenda for an imaginative leap beyond this tragedy and the disabling schisms that strangle progress. Lose the moment, and the forgetting of these traumatic days will be complete by the time the autumn rains come. •