All quiet tonight

I just took Stan out for a walk to see what’s what. Tooting had been tipped as a possible venue for disorder tonight, but while we saw at least thirteen police (three on bikes, five pairs on foot), there were hardly any other people about (weirdly I bumped into a couple who sat behind us on Thursday – they were out looking for mushrooms, everywhere was closed), and certainly no troublemakers. It was a lovely evenening in fact, and while police cars were firing past regularly, it’s very much a case of so far so good.

I don’t know what to make of all this trouble. As someone who spends too much time trying to understand everything he comes across (I asked my mum why? every two minutes as a child), today has been difficult. My upbringing and belief system doesn’t really cater for all this – there must be a reason.  I was all set to refer people to Will Hutton’s Them and Us or Wilkinson and Pickett’s Spirit Level, both good books about how unfair/divided societies are far less healthy than societies where wealth is more equally shared. Then last night we sat in front of various news programmes watching with horror as buildings burned and people suffered, and, well, it goes beyond deprivation and wealth disparity doesn’t it? These people are the shit on the bottom of our feet.

The BBC at one point had a good interview with political correspondent Nick Robinson.  It was agreed that whatever your take on the ills of the modern world, you’d probably find a way to explain these riots.  I agree. There isn’t a simple answer, and just as people say it’ll take a generation to fix all this, it’s probably taken a generation to create it, too. It’s depressing that people would loot a shop for trainers or for crisps or for dvds, but we are where we are and these are the gods we’re all told to worship.

No answers from me, then, but let’s hope all this passes soon.  It’ll come again – you can’t cut police, neglect education, load a society’s interests too far towards the wealthy and expect everyone to sit back and know their place – but hopefully the police are going to be able to get on top of the situation, and communities will perhaps police themselves and their kids that little bit better, and we can all get on with leading our silly little lives again.

27 thoughts on “All quiet tonight

  1. I’m really glad to hear that you and your family are safe, Rich.

    Any news from other CCNers in hotspots?

  2. At university I was an Africana Studies major and looked at the race riots in the 1960s in America and compared them to the riots in France in the mid 2000s. There are a lot of similarities between the two periods, and I’m sure there are similarities btw those riots and the ones in London now. The thing that became very clear to me about the two different periods is that the most important element of the riots is not primarily the causes but also how the story gets told afterwards. Two different perspectives, and well written books about the period are: (America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible) and (Two Nations: Separate Hostile and Unequal). The differences in tone, roughly conservative and liberal, mark many of the foundations for the conversations that are present in American politics today: how do we serve all of society? Some say that it’s in a welfare mode, others that this is reductive and that progress will continue without society’s intervention. The point is that the discussion that follows, and how people assign “causes” and “faults” had a huge determinant on American politics (and in the past decade or so, on French politics). I foresee the same happening in Britain, and I am worried that extreme views on either side of the spectrum will take up the majority of the airwaves in the discussion.

  3. I don’t buy into any of the sociological, psychological, or economic arguments being bandied about. Those can explain a lot, and perhaps even the very beginning of the very first night in Tottenham. But not what we’re seeing.

    To me, the answer lies in very basic political philosophy and the simple question: “why do we have government?” I subscribe to Hobbes’ view. We have government because without it a few nasty people will ruin the world for everyone. So we give up our freedom to get some safety.

    Here, the way the police dealt with the initial flare up in Tottenham showed that they couldn’t deal with too much chaos. This taught clever people from other parts of London that they couldn’t deal with dispersed chaos, and so the next day it spread. This taught clever people outside London that they could do the same, so it spread further. The most basic foundations of the rule of law have broken down (fear of those who govern), and so the evil side of humanity (which would exist no matter how perfect the social system) are taking advantage.

    It happened with football in England in the past. It happened in a whole host of underfunded cities across America as a result of the flight to the suburbs. It happened in many a country across the developed world after the Berlin wall fell.

    The solution, nip antisocial behaviour in the bud through early decisive police and personal/community action against antisocial behaviour. The latter is the absolute key. In the decade since I left England (and noticeably to me at least in the decade before) there has been a creeping trend towards looking away at antisocial behaviour, leaving the policing of it to the police. The most disturbing symptom of which was the development of ASBO’s. If we want to avoid developing from a nanny state to a police state this has to be reversed and people and communities must start taking responsibility for themselves (which thankfully certain immigrant communities appear to be doing across the country protecting their areas and businesses from looting).

    Having said that, the thing that pisses me off the most about all this, is that it has made me sound awfully like David Cameron!

  4. From the other side of the world (Australia), it looks terrible. What scares me even more is the way that extremist views dominate discussion on the TIFF. Not a source of objective opinion, I know, but it represents a section of British society. The way that people jump to simplistic solutions, and quickly point the finger is a worry. I presume (maybe incorrectly) that most football supporters are working people, yet they seem almost completely hard right wing.

    1. With these riots and the rise of the EDL, it would appear (from the States at least) that England is becoming an increasingly polerized society.

      I feel very sorry for the people who have been hurt or lost their livelihoods due to the riots.

      It is also surprising to see that the riots are happening in major EPL cities: Manchester, Liverpool, The Midlands (Wolverhampton, West Brom, Birmingham), and London. I was under the impression that football-related violence was down, and took that as an indication of the overall tone of these major cities. (Luton, of course, notwithstanding.)

  5. As Rich implies, luxury/fashion goods as “the gods we’re all told to worship” is clearly a part of it. So is the diminished role of religion itself, says this atheist.

    It’s 25 years since I taught, meaning it was today’s parents who were my pupils, and nowadays I’m reacquainted with one of them. Martin has two teenage sons of his own and a more solid and upstanding family it would be hard to imagine…..but then they are devout Christians in trad Caribbean mode, as Martin himself was raised to be.

    My second generation West Indian immigrant pupils in Enfield/Edmonton included roughly equal proportions of those of religious family background — who were very well-disciplined indeed by London norms — and of those notably below those norms. Today I have to fear that the proportions have tipped away from the Martins — who are nevertheless unfairly tarred by association as youngsters resembling their own (but absolutely not their own) are so visible in these troubles.

    I’ve the standard distaste for what warped versions of religion lead to, but there’s also a social upside to unwarped religious life. If religion and its disciplines are passé, and family life is frail also, then loftier aspirations [than for luxury branded goods] need to become fashionable among yoof. And feasible.

    Perspective meanwhile among the scenes of shame….it’s the naughtiest x% of youths we’re seeing here — OK, in Martin’s constituency it’s the naughtiest x+y%. Doesn’t make it any less scarey what pockets of merely dozens and hundreds can do to remember that most kids of all backgrounds are at home off-camera.

    1. As a fellow atheist, all I can say is that I’ve brought my son up to believe in certain standards and behaviours and values. Some of those overlap with religious beliefs, some don’t. Basically I’ve brought him up to be a decent human being. There are plenty of examples of people who claim to be Christian behaving in a way that is clearly un-Christian. I don’t think its necessarily the decline in religion, but the decline in parenting (especially the decline in fathering) and the ascent of consumerism. The decline in fathering is not unique to the working classes either. I see many cases of well-to-do fathers who are physically and emotionally absent – working long hours, away on business trips, bringing work home etc. The sons suffer as a result.

    2. I think this plays into the community policing argument I present above. As I see it, the simultaneous decline in the dominant religion in this country and the increase in multiculturalism has caused two things: (a) a decline in clear and, most importantly, universal rules for social behaviour; and (b) a disappearance of a single space in which communities can get together.

      The former is a concern. To a certain extent this is because parents are confused about what the rules of acceptable behaviour constitute (e.g. we’re trained these days to think of old rules as bad and to accept that our children live by different, more modern and thus somehow better ones). But more importantly it is a concern because we’ve clearly developed a developed a culture that says its wrong to impose one’s values on others, thus preventing social action against antisocial behaviour.

      However, it is the latter that I find particularly problematic. Without the central hub for a community that the church once played, we’re all strangers these days. Yet, people are much more likely to tell off someone whose face and parents they know, while people are also much less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour if they are easily identified.

      Thus, as a society, we have never adequately compensated for the way in which religion once bound us together. We desperately need, but have yet to consistently find, clear set of rules (call it a new “Britishness”) that provides clear universally accepted norms of social behaviour, as well as modern secular places to bring people of all ages in a community together.

      1. No I still don’t buy it, for a number of reasons. 1. Religion is as much a divisive factor as a binding one. These riot scenes remind me of Northern Ireland, where there is no shortage of religion. 2.The lack of community is about more than places of worship – its about the destruction of villages and townships and being replaced with high rises and badly designed estates. It’s about long term unemployment. It’s about economic rationalism (Thatcherism was all about individualism – she said there is no such thing as society). You don’t have to have religion to frighten people into behaving acceptably.

        1. You’re being philosphical and I’ve no quarrel with any of it, least of all with the horrors religion can lead to and with the notion that you don’t have to be religious to lead a decent life and rear decent children. The key factor is indeed good parenting which cuts across all cultures and beliefs/non-beliefs. On a *pragmatic* basis, however, organised religion simplifies/d the inculcation of social discipline, this being no longer down to parents to instill by love and example within their nuclear families, acting essentially on their own. Trad religion *lowered the bar in terms of how it easy it was* to raise children who a) had notions of good behaviour, b) felt a sense of local, multi-age community — something rbii touches on. What my friend has inherited and retained from his dad’s Jamaican upbringing, versus highly contrasting notions of `Caribbean’ culture illustrates the point in microcosm. Description, not philosophy.

            1. I can see some of this. We live in an asian area and there hasn’t been much trouble. This would fit with your observations, Peter, as this community seems to be more religious and more community minded. It feels like there’s a glue that stops people from going too far out of line.

              1. The multi-age factor in community is a big one. Media professionals are paid to slice and dice us and so much of it’s by age. Churches/mosques/synagogues, for all their ethnic ghettoisation, counteract that. (Where else do multi-generations socialise outside their families? Football?)

  6. Without disagreeing with any of the above ultimately the root of all this is alienation. An entirely justified feeling that obeying the rules gives the excluded nothing.

    It is about deprivation and lack of education and opportunity – not as a justification for what is happening – but as the underlying cause and the truth is that our government (and its predecessor, most shamefully,) has worshipped at the alter of free market economics and extended the rich/poor divide leaving millions with no hope or stake in society.

    1. I’ve sympathy with Tony’s thoughts there, but of course as they emerge from their upbringings people are messily varied — inconveniently so from a philosophical point of view. Thus, in the areas under spotlight this week, x% of youngsters were rioting, y% were not but wouldn’t have minded doing so, and z% were appalled at the thought. Their external and local circumstances were homogenous.

      Tony mentions educational opportunity….my aforementioned friend Martin’s son hopes to go from his comprehensive in Enfield (not the one where I taught his father, but not essentially different) to medical school and reportedly has a good chance. With the new fees regime, it’s going to be a struggle to fund, and maybe opportunity will turn out to be stifled that way, but you get my drift. He’s in that position, whereas most of his peers are not, and the reasons for that are much closer to home, literally, than Westminster.

      I do agree it’s politicians’ jobs to smooth out familial (dis)advantages more than currently — and that we’d all benefit overall if that happened — but communities are not just for elected representatives to organise and paid staff to implement. Most of the conversation above is therefore at least as pertinent as what Tony’s saying, and even a bit more so.

  7. I often struggle with what passes for discussion of race and the intersection of race and class in England. The terms and the assumptions seem so different than here in the States. I don’t have much to add, just one observation. A statement like this “These people are the shit on the bottom of our feet” if made in the US in reference to predominately dark(er) skinned rioters would spark nothing but absolute outrage. I have no doubt there are plenty of justifications for such a statement — but for me, it just serves as one of those moments that remind me how different the discussion is in our two countries.

    1. Hi Mike

      Sorry if causing offence. It applies to rioters of whatever race. It did start as a black disturbance but at this point this is no longer the case.

      1. Also I’m not quite sure how else you can describe people setting fire to buildings, stealing things from local/small businesses (as well as larger ones) etc. Teh protests in Tottenham are perhaps different – there was a real grievance there and they were entitled to make this known. The looting and subsequent disrespect for authority are not explicable in the same way.

    2. also odd how america cannot talk about these things in such a way, but a decent majority are more than happy to piss on the poor, deny them healthcare, etc, while ensuring that the wealthy have all the tax breaks they wish for.

      1. No doubt about the irony. Americans are surely more advanced on race issues than class issues (and I think the inverse is true of most European countries). And none of this is to deny how race gets injected into debates about class in the US (more so in the past but even now at times when the political right senses possible political gains from it). In thinking about this, and scanning the reading choices suggested by others above, I did remember one helpful thinker from the UK who touched on some of these issues. I read his stuff twenty years ago and it was quite relevant then, so I am not sure if it still is (or if he has produced anything more recent): Paul Gilroy’s “Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.” He followed it up with “The Black Atlantic” which was more global in scope. But, as you say, there are two issues here — the one having to do with the original Tottenham riot and the one having to do with the larger riots that followed that have as much to do with something else (pent up economic/racial/religious/cultural rage without an accompanying clear critique of capital of the State?) as with the triggering event.

      2. This country has a good share of historical horrors to its name, but they don’t include industrial scale race-based slavery on its own shores (it was conveniently offshore instead, out of site of most, not the subject of civil war). Pretty sure this accounts for some of the cultural difference alluded to. Open question if there’s much deeper-down difference as well.

        1. The deeper down issue stems from much of this (but not all). African-American aren’t viewed as visitors or foreign by non-African-Americans here. Not to destroy the english language but it would be completely foreign to think of Af-Ams as foreign in any way. When I was growing up, one of the strangest (but truest) things I heard from the olds was that, for a long time, racist Southerners understood this better than the supposedly enlightened white Northerners (and indeed, to this day, helps explain Southern racial anxiety and self-hate).

          1. aek I hope you check out the books I mentioned above. They really get at a lot of the comments you bring up in terms of the history of racial discussion post civil-rights era. In particular they focus on the discrepancy in North/South discourse about race, and how integration (i.e. becoming a part of the white community) is now the dividing line. I find it fascinating, especially as it connects with Rich’s point, that some of the communities that are least integrated in America are in Northern cities, yet these cities are where there are greater levels of social services, etc.

          2. Arrivals to the UK in significant numbers from the West Indies date from the 1950s onwards, and from the Indian subcontinent more recently still. Let’s re-discuss attitudinal differences in 2150.

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