The civil disorder of the 1980s is the focus in the flurry of intellectual groping for comparative explanations for this month’s riots. Initially it is an attractive place to be, to feel cosy and park your soap box, switch on the power point and even to develop some historically associated righteous anger; those Tories again. Better the enemy you remember. But it only serves to confuse us about the causes and character of our contemporary riots. It is a place to feel nostalgic and safe, to paint political purpose where there is none, a fantasy-scape to hide from the bloody awful reality of the unique challenge that confronts us today. In fact, the first rioting that helps us understand today’s events took place in the early 1990s in isolated housing estates throughout Britain when random events rapidly triggered self-destructive and inchoate rampages. More on that later.
History is not repeating itself. The civil disorder from 1981 to 1985 in Brixton, Blackwater Farm, St Pauls, Toxteth, Handsworth, Southall and Moss Side was combat of interests. With a backdrop of recession the focus of most riots was on the repressive policing tactics (sus laws) and undisguised racism of the state’s men at arms. Social solidarity united rioters and local communities, who recognised that their own interests were being defended by the violence of their youth. There was looting but it was peripheral. Yes, a death amongst the black community sparked the riots then as now. Then, however, the deaths were recognised as evidence of divisive and systematic racial politics. The rioting of young men and women was fuelled by a sense, albeit incoherent, of potency; an attempt to fightback and push them out of their communities.
Today the rhetoric of young rioters when mentioning Mark Duggan’s death is closer to the angst of an enraged yet powerless victim; of people who do not believe they can make change happen; rather like children pushing the boundaries of a parent’s authority. There is no contest of interests in play in 2011. The rioters loot and burn shops and houses in their own areas without purpose. The police hesitate and are confused about whether to ‘police by consent’ or to have a go. In some cases heavily outnumbered officers, incensed by their orders, simply went for it and called the rioters bluff. The majority though remained averse to the consequences and subsequently inactivity became the norm, whether kettling or cat and mouse chases. In effect the rioters merely filled the space conceded by the shrinking authorities. In the 1980s the police had a strong sense of their role as a force or political tool. They understood their position in a politicised ‘us and them’ equation. Today, they are a mixture of empathetic social workers, technocratic administrators and well-tooled marksmen. It is doubtful whether they are even convinced about the rules and values they are meant to uphold. For many it is fast becoming merely a job. The death of Ian Tomlinson in the G20 riots, oft quoted by officers for their hesitation, was able to cloud their decision making because they no longer believe their superiors will close ranks and back them up. The police community is coming unstuck too.
The establishment stood firm throughout most of the 1980s. Thatcher was unremitting in her support for the police and law and order. In 1981 in Toxteth, CS gas was used for the first time in main land Great Britain and by the end of the same year a once ill-prepared police force (without riot gear or training) had been quickly para-militarised. In 1985, 9000 police raided one quarter of the homes on the Broadwater Farm Estate. Douglas Hurd, Thatcher’s Home Secretary, backed the Met’s Chief Newman’s threat to use plastic bullets and CS gas on the Farm and any other part of London that rioted. As others have noted the experience of political struggle in that decade through the race riots to the miner’s strike, from Northern Ireland to the Falkands War tested cohered and emboldened the authority of the State.
In 2011, the post-riot government resembles a think-tank in power rather than a politically coherent machine. They govern by holiday reading list: spirit level, happiness index, nudge, blink and always adapt. Thatcher wobbled in her time but there was a line drawn behind her government across which no-one would retreat. She had an historic job to do – to end the post-war social consensus, discipline the British working class and stave off economic crisis – and her party had the intellectual stamina and confidence to do it. Cameron and Clegg are not equipped with the political principles and discipline to hold the line. Without a rigid ideological spine they flop and are intoxicated by the next new fad.
Since the riots ended they have given out confusing messages, bouncing between repression and a hug. They are feeling around for an answer and making policy up on the hoof rather than turning to deeply held beliefs and values about society and how it ought to be organised. The instant they consider weening people off of welfare dependency, they balk at the potential consequences. Their reaction to the riots, state intervention to micro-manage the private life of the family and rebuild parental authority, contradicts their avowed aim of stripping away the nanny state . They are stymied by indecision fearful of unleashing another unpredictable reaction. So the list of daily remedies resembles a Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat salad bowl; they want to hug 120,000 hoodies, give tax breaks for married couples, and control of social media and the creation of curfews. They have gone to seed. The coalition’s decision to govern by petition – that sought the return of the death penalty and eviction from council housing for rioters - underlines its directionless character and absence of firm leadership.
By 1990, Thatcher’s economic and political programme was exhausted. That year witnessed the Poll Tax Riots; the last gasp of the old left that was almost extinguished by Kinnock’s Labour Party and its own irrelevance. The riots were a narrow but extremely violent response to Thatcher’s belligerent pursuit of an alternative form of taxation. During the unrest neither the Labour Party nor the Trade Union movement could control or mobilise public anger that took the form of pitched battles with the police in Trafalgar Square. Few people were politicised by them but at least they had an outward focus compared with today’s inward-looking and self-destructive riots.
The first riots to give a premonition of what unravelled on our metropolitan streets this year exploded in the early 1990s rather than 1981. On estates in Ely (Cardiff), Hartcliffe (Bristol), Blackbird Leys (Oxford) and Meadow Well (Tyneside) between April 1991 and September 1992, random localised causes were evolved into short-lived and nihilistic rampages. All the areas were profoundly deprived and isolated from urban centres. On the Hartcliffe Estate, a peripheral ward of Bristol, two young men were killed when the police motorbike they had just stolen crashed into the police car that was chasing them. The three days of rioting that ensued destroyed shops, a library and a petrol station. As an example of the social isolation of the area its population of 20,000 people had no banks. It was an area in which health was so poor that local GPs would write NFH (Normal for Hartcliffe) on people’s examinations. 59% of families were one parent and in 1992 only two of the one hundred students who left the local school found a job. In Blackbird Leys and Meadow Well, riots started when local boy racers died in car crashes after being chased by the police. Meadow Well was a huge estate in North Tyneside. The council and police had left it to rot and it was nicknamed as ‘Pigsville’ by the local constabulary. The riots involved four hundred people and petrol bombs destroyed an electrical sub-station, a chip shop and the local youth centre. The collapse of community organisation, values and self-respect was rapid. Commentators and the authorities noted that Meadow Well’s and Hartcliffe’s adult populations were hit hard by mass unemployment in a very short space of time and were socially and geographically isolated outside of metropolitan areas. Huge swathes of the communities became quickly dependent on long-term welfare and entered a cycle of despondency. ‘Hotting’ (car racing in streets) and drugs became distractions from the corrosive impact of their community’s decline. Left to fester, devoid of any political or community developed response, these communities had slipped off the social and moral radar. Older members of the community with memories of more productive and optimistic days were prominent in the State’s attempt to revitalise Meadow Well and many received MBEs for their efforts. But as a local BBC documentary about Meadow Well discovered a full fifteen years after the riots, whilst the physical infrastructure of the area has improved with better housing and a transport link, the social and moral fabric for many young people remained hopelessly shredded. In interviews with residents the same moral surrender had taken place but now it was filmed on the estate’s array of CCTV cameras. It had echoes of the Truman Show except no-one was and is watching.
The next series of riots that presage August 2011’s disturbances took place in the Northern urban centres of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in 2001. Asian and white youth fought for days in what were mistaken for 1970s style politicised racially motivated battles. But as Kenan Malik points out in his book, ‘From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy’, these riots did not represent politically fuelled contests over race. He argues that they were evidence of the total failure in the 1980s and 1990s of attempts by the establishment to forge unifying values to underpin national cohesion and identity. After the 1980s riots the local and national government pushed into communities. The Labour Party sought to harness the anger within black communities in the 1980s and transform it into narrow support and votes for a shrinking and electorally defeated party. It sought to win over disillusioned ethnic communities through its considerable political presence in inner city boroughs, giving out grants, community initiatives, political posts and prestige to black and Asian groups. This had a blunting effect on the political potential of the outrage and action of black communities. Fuelled by central and local government funding these initiatives helped to neuter the possibility of independent political organisation in these communities.
These initiatives formed the foundation of the official policy of multiculturalism. The new policy privileged the celebration of difference as the way to combat prejudice and discrimination. It accelerated and formalised the erosion of common values, shared experience and identities inside and between communities. Equality was now seen as the right to have different rights not the same ones. In 2001, the damaging impact that this state driven ideological project had on social cohesion was laid bare. It revealed the existence of segregated and parallel worlds. Home Secretary David Blunkett’s only response was a desperate call for people to be more British and for an oath of allegiance to Britain to be created. But from what social, political or moral material were people to weave their British identity? To what degree had multiculturalism generated the conditions for the August Riots whether by its divisive impact or by displacing any chance of community initiated responses to their own problems? More on those in later blogs.
Two other facets of the recent riots have permeated more recent demonstrations and disorder; a non-existent or seriously degraded political outlook and the weakness of the police. The 2009 G20 London demo was aimless and incoherent resembling an angry mob of trustafarians in a tizzy rather than a focused threat to anything or anyone. The blunt police instrument of kettling mirrored the amorphous nature of the demonstrators. Ian Tomlinson’s death, a man who had nothing to do with the demonstration, who was just on his way home, tragically symbolised the incoherence and randomness of the entire day’s events. The 2010 Anti-tuition fee demonstration and, in particular, the attack on the Conservative Party HQ at Millbank revealed the extent to which the police were ill-prepared to take on opportunist and tactically naive rioters. At Millbank both students and police seemed to be in a surreal dance with neither partner sure of what to do to the other; in the end both sides filmed each other filming each other. Instead of taking the risk of doing much both were obsessed with warning the other side that their actions were recorded and with gathering evidence for future court cases. The 2011 Anti-Cuts demonstration through London was more like a funeral march than a political event. The rioters ended the day playing kiss chase with the police and foraging in Fortnum and Masons and the police indulged them. Everyone else walked to Hyde Park to hear trade union dinosaurs whimper and whine. The overall effect was to demoralise anyone who was on it. On that day I saw people acknowledge that they faced austerity as isolated individuals as they stood in a field with half a million others.
Considering that the legal definition of a riot is when twelve people or more, ‘use or threaten to use violence for a common purpose’ then strictly speaking we have not witnessed riots over the past few weeks. It is something even more atomised and liquid; much tougher to see, ascribe causality and respond to as the flailing about by politicians since had acutely revealed. What we can be sure of, as this short history of British rioting attests, is that there exists a profound anomie at the heart of British society broadly underpinned by the destruction of autonomous and self-determined community values and morality. This will require new thinking rather than lazy grabs at hazy memories.