London—Trying to return to Hackney, five minutes from the heart of the protests, from vacation on the night the rioting was at its fiercest provided an insight into the carnage engulfing London. The city had been transformed into a kind of Alan Moore dystopia. Sirens were deafening, with bright lights blinding. Train operators announced gravely that there had been “civil unrest” across London, and that some areas of the city were no longer safe.
My train passed through a south London borough ravaged by rioting. The smell of burning was overwhelming. Attempts at getting a taxi back to Hackney evoked incredulous responses from cab drivers. One driver nervously told me that he was “not going anywhere near” the area again.
The next day, scared business owners closed early all over the city. Shops were boarded up and most folks were afraid to go outdoors. Parts of London were observing a self-imposed curfew. The government swelled the police presence on London’s streets to 16,000 (up from 6,000 the night before) and armed them with rubber bullets. While it deterred rioting on the same scale as the previous night, unfortunately, it spread to the north. Three men were killed in Birmingham trying to protect their business.
The trigger for the violence was the police shooting of a man in Tottenham, north London, who was possession of an illegal firearm. Opinion is divided as to why the violence was so widespread in response. Some commentators ascribed the motive to “boredom.” Yet young people in London live in one of the most vibrant, exciting cities in the world, where there are world-class attractions they can enjoy for free. If they are bored in London, there cannot be too many places that would capture their attention. Some rioters said they were being shown insufficient “respect.” Two others offered this explanation: “Yeah...like it's the government's fault.” “Conservatives.” “Yeah, whatever, who it is, I dunno.”
The left wing politicians and the commentariat lined up to defend the protestors. Labour’s former deputy leader suggested the rioting was a response to the “trebling of university tuition fees,” as if the rioters were on the verge of posting an application to Oxford but instead decided to smash up a shop and steal a plasma TV. The former London mayor explained the mass rioting as a response to “cuts being imposed by the Tory government.” Another Labour MP claimed that it was the banking crisis of 2008 that was to blame, as the rioters were simply “alienated young copying [the] ethos of looting bankers.” In the Guardian, Britain’s foremost liberal paper, those condemning the riots were criticized for not considering the “bigger picture”—inequality. Another left wing journalist lamented the apparently inevitable response to the riots—“fear,” “racism,” and “condemnation”—as if it were condemnation of the violence, rather than the violence itself, that was the problem. Another author told the BBC that the rioters smashing shop windows in London were the moral equivalents of those rising up against dictators in the Middle East.
The issues raised by these riots are generational and cannot be resolved, necessarily, by the government. Traditional structures of authority in the UK have been eroded. Parents have no ability to control their children and instill basic levels of morality and respect. The police—powerless to stop young rioters destroying businesses and private property—have been utterly emasculated. As one officer said, “We can't cope. We have passed breaking point.” Television footage shows them on the retreat, outnumbered and without the resources to fight back. And, according to “Winston Smith,” the British home secretary, Theresa May, recently announced, before having to backtrack, that the British way was not to enforce the laws. “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon…the way we police in Britain is through consent of communities,” May reportedly said.
Despite over 1,100 arrests, the country is bracing itself for more nights of violence. The public mood is ugly, with calls for the army to be brought in, the use of water cannons ,and the state to turn off all social media websites. China and Iran feel emboldened enough to call on the British government to show restraint in dealing with domestic unrest. This embarrassment shows how badly things have descended. Much more violence and they could descend even further. Britain needs to pull itself back from the brink.
Robin Simcox is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London.