Riots show us the fragility of law and order
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