By John Lloyd
All opinions expressed are his own.
On Sunday evening, a middle aged woman waded into a crowd of rioters in Hackney and shouted that she was ashamed to be black, ashamed to be a Hackney woman – because of the destruction and fear the rioters were spreading about them. But she went further. She said – Get real black people! I am ashamed to be a Hackney person! If you want a cause, get a cause! (See video below; contains graphic language.)
I had just spent a day, in Glasgow, with men who had had a cause. Forty years ago, workers at the Upper Clyde Shipyards in Scotland’s great old industrial city, where the workforce was being cut, voted to stage a work-in: a novel form of industrial action in which those laid off reported for work as normal, and continued to build ships. The action was led by two men, Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid, both charismatic, both fighting for a cause – the right to work, the protection of the working class. They got huge support, in the city, in the country, even internationally. They won, for the shipyards on the Clyde, a temporary reprieve.
Both Jimmies are dead: the men I met, interviewees for a BBC program marking the anniversary, were fellow union representatives, well into their seventies. Yet, straight-backed and articulate, they knew what they were fighting for. As we talked after the interviews about the news from London, they expressed bewilderment: what were “the lads” fighting for? Why were they destroying their neighborhoods?
It’s a puzzlement shared in conversations across the capital. We can talk, still relatively lightly, about our lack of fear (except for those who have had a taste of it) based on the implicit assumption that the police will, tonight or tomorrow, take charge, show who has the power on the streets and bring the most egregious of the burners and the looters to justice. We exchange stories – of how near the riots got to us; of how we had friends caught up in it; of how shocked we felt. But beneath it all is the same puzzlement: what are they doing it for?
Most demonstrations have spokespeople, who sooner or later – usually sooner – seek to make their cause known and attract support to it. The cause might be, as in Glasgow, jobs and dignity; or it might be protests against racial discrimination, of which London has seen a few over the past three decades; or it might be against immigration. All of these, however much opposition they raise, had content and demands.