Twenty years after another royal wedding, Prince Charles and Diana’s, in a year that saw the beginning of a U.S. double-dip recession, it seems as if history is repeating itself. Reporting on the riots, The Telegraph wrote that over the weekend, “missiles, including Molotov cocktails, rocks and fire extinguishers, were thrown at [police] officers. A bookmaker’s shop was set alight and other shop windows were smashed. Stores in the area were looted, with people seen pushing away shopping trolleys full of stolen goods.” Since then, the riots have intensified and spread to suburbs of the capital and to cities outside of London.
While rioters ravage the streets of London for a fourth day, opportunistic British political pundits have already begun blaming the Tory-led coalition government. They argue that the country has seen multiple student protests, the occupation of dozens of universities, and a number of strikes and trade-union marches that have all taken place against a setting of “callous” cuts and imposed austerity measures. In their worldview, the riots should serve as a rebuke to the premiership of David Cameron. Indeed, former London mayor Ken Livingstone suggested that the “Tottenham riot had triggered pent up resentment over the weak economy, high unemployment and historically deep budget cuts that are decreasing government funding for poor communities and grass roots charities.” As a result, young Britons are now facing “the bleakest future.”
Predictably, the coalition government has called the looting “sheer criminality.” Unofficial statements claim that “unlike the protests last December that included vandalism by anarchists of central London businesses, those participating in riots over the past 48 hours showed no signs of trying to make a political statement.” David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, denounced the disorder as “mindless.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described it as “needless, opportunistic theft and violence.”
However, to dismiss the riots as mere mob mischief or to imply that they are reactions to harsh austerity measures is far too simplistic. There are socio-economic factors at play here, and the broader relationship between the citizenry and local security forces is also a factor. In Tottenham, where the unrest originated, the riots say more about the neighborhood’s relationship with the local police, considered acrimonious at best. The district is the site of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, a succession of clashes that resulted in the stabbing of a police officer and sixty other injuries, underscoring tensions between London’s law enforcement and the metropolitan’s black community. Today, relations between the minority communities and capital police have improved, but mistrust remains in many Tottenham sub-cultures.
That said, the spread of riots into other areas of London is also a function of economics and a sign of disenfranchisement. The Financial Times writes, “This is a crisis of … communities facing external economic pressures that, in turn, have exacerbated internal divisions … Those who have grown in a world where social identity comes from consumption find themselves barred in times of economic hardship, except by theft.” Disenfranchised British youth, who believe that they have no stake in British society, have banded together in these riots to feel powerful, if only for a moment.
Whether the riots are a reaction to Britain’s austerity measures, acts of criminal opportunism, symptoms of a tense relationship between the police and minority communities, or are broader indications of social deprivation within the UK, one thing is certain: in the coming months, the leadership of Britain must work to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. The wrong thing for Britain’s politicians to do would be to continue fiddling while London burns.
— Alex Della Rocchetta is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.