War came to Britain’s streets two weeks ago in London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol and other urban centers. The country has seen protests against the Iraq War, against cuts in pensions for local government employees and teachers, and against dramatic increases in student tuition fees. The events of recent days, however, have been the worst social unrest in a generation. They’ve been a reminder of the 1980s, when urban riots shook British society to its core.
Thirty years ago, racism in the inner cities was rampant. James Callagahn’s Labour goverment had fallen and the political Left was utterly demoralized. Margaret Thatcher, champion of ultra right-wing economic theories and political soulmate of Ronald Reagan, was now the prime minister and was determined to confront the unions she saw as the main cause of social evils. Thatcher, with her Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe and Industry Secretary Keith Joseph, administered shock therapy to the country.
Thatcher’s shock doctrine was applied in the form of drastic cuts in benefits for the unemployed, the sick, and the elderly. Public services were slashed and the privatization of many services followed, as did high interest rates in the fight against inflation. Many in the workforce lost hope. Economic and social turmoil ensued. There were street riots in deprived inner-city areas suffering the brunt of Thatcherite policies, the most infamous in the south London neighborhood of Brixton in 1981.
Three decades hence, there are those who say that Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have stolen Margaret Thatcher’s manual. It asserts that there is no solution to our economic problems other than cutting workers’ pay, privatization and outsourcing, and slashing benefits and raising taxes for ordinary people. But higher taxes for the rich are a bad thing.
That experiment has failed, and it has failed repeatedly. It has generated deeper poverty and inequalities. It has led to high unemployment, low wages, and even lower benefits that are designed to force citizens to work. It is called competition and it is trumpeted because, in truth, it is good for company profits. The old mantra that corporate profits filter down to the lower rungs of society and benefit the poor remains as dubious today as it was thirty years ago.
There’s been a chorus of condemnation against the rioters. We’ve been told that these rioters are evil and that this evil must be defeated. Any effort to look at these events in context, however, is anathema, particularly in the eyes of government ministers. Before he became prime minister, David Cameron used to describe Britain as a “broken society.” Today, he prefers to call parts of that society “sick.”
Of course, rioting and looting involve criminality and must be condemned. But that’s not the whole story. While straightforward acts of arson and looting were taking place in Tottenham and neighboring areas of London, the violence in Birmingham took on racial overtones. Text messages that gangs of one ethnic origin or other were coming “to get you” circulated. Worse, in an act of deliberate murder, a car hit and killed three British Muslims guarding their properties.
A headline in the Independent spoke of race relations as being on a knife’s edge. Social disturbances always have deeper roots. Their context is as important as the event that triggers them. It is convenient for politicians, in the habit these days of using the language of violence themselves, to blame “criminals.” It releases them from the responsibility of actions that have created the current distressing context.
The London riots broke out on the night of August 6. Two days before, police shot and killed a black man, Mark Duggan, a local resident who was going in a taxi. For several days, the official version in the press depicted Duggan as a “gangster.” It implied that a shot was fired from the taxi at a policeman, and that the bullet was lodged in the officer’s radio. Police fired back and Duggan died. However, it later transpired that the bullet lodged in the officer’s radio might, in fact, have been fired by another police officer.
A crowd waited for several hours outside a police station for answers, but the mood turned furious when nobody came out to answer questions. A witness described a separate incident in which a sixteen-year-old girl was severely beaten when she approached policemen to remonstrate. Within hours, London was burning and the rioting was spreading to other cities in England, the mother country of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Wales, with their own elected regional governments, were thankfully peaceful. They were to send police reinforcements to the affected areas of England.
Western societies have suffered a major socioeconomic and moral collapse. The recent street violence in England’s cities is the latest, most disturbing expression of individual selfishness and anger causing the rot. For years, people have been taught the Thatcherite maxim that “there is no such thing as society, collective conscience or collective kindness.” That dictum tells that individuals live for themselves; morality is personal and so, too, is the individual’s freedom to amass wealth.
This way of life has created something akin to Hobbesian socioeconomic conditions in Britain today. On the one hand, the vast majority struggle to make ends meet. On the other, the scandal of members of parliament making fraudulent, or questionable, claims for expenses to supplement their incomes. And the police have been revealed as taking bribes from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. For a long time, there appears to have been one law for the rich and powerful, and a different law for the rest. The recent riots began in Tottenham, in the London Borough of Haringey, which has some of the most deprived inner-city areas. In the nearby Borough of Hackney, youth clubs are closing. Where will the youth go?
Still, government cuts continue to bite and seem relentless. Among the hundreds who have been arrested in recent days are people of all ages and backgrounds: minors and adults, men and women, university graduates, a ballerina, a charity worker, a schoolteacher, a law student, a mother with a six-month-old baby—and a millionaire’s daughter.
I know London well, having worked in the capital city for most of my life. To see adults breaking into large stores and walking away with expensive gadgets is shocking enough. Even more shocking is to see a ten-year-old boy, who has picked up just a few items of food, going home on his bike.
Deepak Tripathi, a former BBC correspondent and editor (1977– 2000), covered every British general election during his career in the corporation. Nowadays his interests include Britain and the United States in the post-Soviet international order.
Republished with permission from History News Network