Riots show us the fragility of law and order

By Nicholas Wapshott
August 11, 2011

By Nicholas Wapshott
All opinions expressed are his own.

The pictures from London of scorched double-deckers, burnt out stores, and hooded thugs hauling home flat screen TVs are deeply unsettling. Among those who have appeared in court so far are a postman, a school worker, a new father out shopping for diapers, the undergraduate daughter of a multi-millionaire, and an 11-year-old boy who posted on Facebook: “Let’s start a riot.” Something has profoundly changed in William Blake’s green and pleasant land. The honest, upright descendants of Londoners who met the Blitz with a shrug are now cowering in their homes to escape the marauding mob.

What has rattled Britain? What prompted this thuggery and thievery? The spark, as is often the case with civil unrest, was a controversial action by police who shot dead a robbery suspect. Indignant friends of the victim marched on the local precinct and before long, with police distracted and their forces stretched, looters took advantage of the mayhem and began pillaging stores. What has taken Britain by surprise is that the lawbreaking did not end. Night after night since, and even in broad daylight, the destruction has continued.

When social order breaks down in one of the world’s most firmly founded and best behaved civic societies, something alarming is afoot. There are no excuses for “mindless,” “senseless” criminality, but there must, surely, be an explanation for such widespread contempt for law and order. If civilization is more fragile than we would care to imagine in well mannered England, could it break down in the United States? Are there special circumstances that explain the anarchy in London that do not apply elsewhere?

Friends and family in Britain report that the country has been unsettled ever since the financial collapse of 2008. The rescue of the banks and the calming of the economy was expensive and revealed a disparity between help provided for bankers and for the rest of the nation. While those running financial institutions soon resumed their old ways, awarding themselves high salaries and bonuses, those whose taxes paid to clean up the mess were put on short ration. Socialism, it seemed, was for the rich, not the poor.

A general election that might have cleared the air proved inconclusive: Gordon Brown was defeated, but his rival, David Cameron, fell short of a majority and was deprived of a clear mandate. Nonetheless, in the face of economic uncertainty, he announced a radical plan to swiftly reduce Britain’s debt that entailed swingeing austerity not seen since World War Two, including deep cuts in public services such as police staff and a sharp increase in taxation. It did not help the perception that there was one rule for the rich and another for the rest that Cameron’s cabinet contained trust fund babies for whom austerity is a concept not an experience, and that three out of five of them went to either Oxford or Cambridge. British unemployment is at 7.7 per cent and rising and will continue to climb as the cuts begin to bite. Youth unemployment is far worse and there is talk of a “lost generation.” The most recent UK growth figures show the economy tipping toward recession.

To this catalogue of despair came the news a month ago that Cameron and his ministers and the capital’s top policemen were disturbingly cozy with executives at the Murdoch tabloids that had been hacking voicemails and paying police for information about crime victims and celebrities. The Scotland Yard commissioner, Paul Stephenson, resigned because of his links to Murdoch employees, as did the head of the anti-terror squad. Instead of keeping politicians on their toes, it appeared Murdoch’s papers were perpetrating a protection racket that traded political influence and a waiving of regulations for keeping embarrassing stories off the front pages. Honest politicians who sought to expose this extortion were harassed and humiliated by Murdoch’s henchmen. The revelation that the country was being run by a conspiracy between politicians and the press brought intense public anger tinged with relief. One journalist described it as “our Berlin Wall moment.”

The British are on edge. Their sense of fair play has been offended. Their trust in government has been undermined. They find fault with both political parties. Their jobs and their living standards are threatened. Usually chipper about the future, they look at the next few years with dread. It is a familiar story. In the face of cut public budgets to trim the national debt, Greeks, Spaniards and the Irish, too, have taken to the streets.

Just three years ago, the world teetered on the edge of catastrophe. Prompt action by governments pulled us back from the brink. Now chaos is once again battering at the door. But this time, governments everywhere, including in the U.S., face angry voters and are frozen in partisan inaction. It is hard not to conclude, as the historian Simon Schama suggested in the sober Financial Times, that “we might be on the threshold of an age of rage.”

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W. W. Norton in October. Read an extract at https://sites.google.com/site/wapshottkeyneshayek/

PHOTO: A police officer stands guard as firefighters work to extinguish the flames of a blazing store in Woolwich, southeast London, August 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Boyle

9 comments

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Riots also show us the dangers that mass migration has on social cohesion, as seen in France several years ago. Immigration policies must take into account the ability for the new population to gel with the existing population. Amnesty moves to provide citizenship to 20 million unknown, illegal persons into this nation are a formula for disaster. Our nation is following the footsteps of France and England, and we will see similar results in the near future if we don’t start implementing common sense laws like most other nations. Mass amnesty can not be undone and will lead to more chain migration and problems that can not be imagined. Americans must demand common sense immigration policies. Fairus.org

Posted by actnow | Report as abusive

Yes, we’re angry at our dubiously appointed ‘leaders’. And, of course, there’s a lot of opportunism. I think we’re feeling the impact of selfishness and greed from the top. The voice of wisdom is mighty powerful and so, so refreshing: http://www.twitvid.com/4JTZH

Posted by Nostrildamus | Report as abusive

all this does is show how vulnerable an unarmed populous is against savage riots.
In America, those looters would end up dead.

Posted by ActualTaxpayer | Report as abusive

The problem is that the voters are locked out of the political system altogether. Particularly in the U.S. the wealthy have bought the political parties, and so the middle class and the poor have nowhere to turn. We have a one party political system. Only the wealthy are represented, the rest of the country is disenfranchised. So expect more violence, as the political system, blinded by greed, is unwilling to listen to the rest of the electorate.

Posted by contrarianview | Report as abusive

People put far too much faith in law and order. If you read any history at all, you quickly realize that it consists mainly of illegal actions. The Magna Carta, The American Revolution, the French Revolution, any coup, and frankly, any war.
All illegal.

Another interesting thing to note is that the businessmen and pols in charge call the rioters mere looters and hooligans, whether the rioting was in London or Tunisia or Syria.

Inconvenient facts that each top cultural group tries to ignore until the disaffected populations slap them upside the head. History shows that revolutions occur during depressions and recessions, not during times of growth.

Too many historians look at what the rioters say when that is irrelevant. The Tunisians said they are fighting oppression. Sounds plausible. The articles also note that they are doing so after 40 years of oppression. That’s why I blame the recession that just recently occurred and not the oppression that has been ongoing for 40 years.

Posted by Banj0man | Report as abusive

When you have sit in’s at 10 Downey and Buckingham Palace, then the revolution would have truly started.
Until then, its just a bunch of thuggery which will result in the Brits losing more freedoms in the name of police protection which was nil during the riots.

Posted by nyc007 | Report as abusive

There were spivs in the Blitz too. And looters during the Fire of London. Anthony Burgess’ Alex de Large was 11 years old. And, on the other side of the coin, there are people protecting their communities and keeping their children indoors now. Experience suggests that the proportion of the population who are spivs and looters, and the proportion who meet their obligations to society are two of the great constants of history.

The only thing that’s changed is the imperative which makes the press focus on this or that group of citizens. And, I mischievously submit, only an op-ed columnist would dare to describe that as “profound”.

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

It’s sad to say but I think the UK has promoted an “every man for himself” society (much like the US) ever since the Thatcher days.
By and large the UK no longer consists of stiff upper lipped communities but individuals and opportunists.
This combined with a heightened gap between haves and have-nots will continue to give us problems in the future.
The States has not solved these problems – instead it tries to contain them by building gated communities and throwing millions in prison.

Posted by AndrewGauld | Report as abusive

[...] U.K. have brought out the usual responses from government officials and white, middle class people. Gordon Brown says they are hooligans and will pay in court. Perhaps their families will pay by being evicted from [...]

The difference between America and Great Britain is that in America, many people are armed because of the second amendment. In Great Britain, they don’t like guns, the cops don’t even carry guns. But here is a really good example of if you are a shop owner or a store owner and you don’t have a gun, you’re in big trouble. Is any of that been raised by the BBC and the other liberal British press that maybe the cops should be tougher and maybe should be armed?

Posted by buzz19848 | Report as abusive

[...] U.K. have brought out the usual responses from government officials and white, middle class people. Gordon Brown says they are hooligans and will pay in court. Perhaps their families will pay by being evicted from [...]