London's Burning

London's Burning

Written by Mark Braund Monday, 08 August 2011
As I write, police helicopters are circling overhead; the smell of burning vehicles hangs in the air.

On my way home this evening the normally quiet pavements were thronged with people forced to walk; their buses unable to get in or out of Lewisham, where the town centre was locked down by riot police dealing the with the worst disturbances in the borough since the Anti-Nazi League faced down the fascist National Front in 1977.

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Of course things have moved on since the dark days of the 1970s. Or have they? Home Secretary Theresa May returned early from her holiday to declare events a problem of ‘sheer criminality’. She didn’t bother to offer any context; presumably because she’s doesn’t think there’s anything more to it.

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Context Not Soundbite

But context there is, and it couldn’t be more obvious: If the spark was the shooting by police of a man in Tottenham, the background, just as it was when Brixton went up in flames thirty years ago, is the worst economic crisis for decades. If Theresa May is right, and it is just a question of criminal behaviour, then why doesn’t it happen every time the police get excessively trigger-happy? Why didn’t Chelsea erupt when Barrister Mark Saunders was killed in hail of bullets fired by seven marksmen from the Met’s CO19?

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In places like Tottenham, Lewisham and Hackney, there are thousands of young people who left school years ago, and have never had a job. Even if they hadn’t been failed by the education system, there would be no jobs for them. There haven’t been since structural unemployment became a permanent feature of western economies. It’s a wonder there haven’t been riots on this scale every summer since 1979. These sheer criminals would seem to have a pretty high tolerance for being treated as second class citizens.

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“Get on Your Bike and Look for Work”

It’s surely no coincidence that Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth are the three London boroughs to have suffered most from the spending cuts forced through by the government under its austerity programme. But while the cuts may have brought things to breaking point, there’s a bigger question that needs to be asked. What kind of society arranges itself so that the only way to keep young people occupied is by spending tax payers money to build youth centres and swimming pools, so young adults have something to do?

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People want and need jobs. Everyone needs a degree of economic security and some confidence that it will continue in the future. When growing numbers are denied these basic human rights, the social contract breaks down. People don’t riot when they perceive society to be reasonably fair; when they have access to viable economic opportunities; when they can earn a reasonable living for themselves and their families; and when, as a result, they develop a sense of self-worth and a belief that the rest of society is happy to count them as full and active members.

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Beware of the Men with Nothing to Lose

The mainstream media, and most of the expert commentators to whom they give a platform, are already condemning the riots in the most superficial and blinkered fashion; determined not to understand the underlying causes. It’s not a question of whether the rioters are right or wrong; the current conflagration was inevitable given the condition that growing numbers of people, effectively excluded from both education and the economy, find themselves: with no hope, and with absolutely nothing to lose.

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The dominant neo-classical model of economics offers no solution; in fact it has led us directly to the current crisis. A radical restructuring of the economy so that everyone has a genuine stake in the mechanisms by which wealth is generated, is crucial. Other solutions are no more than sticking plaster. If we are not prepared to countenance radical economic reform, then we look forward to riots becoming a regular feature on the social landscape.

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Mark Braund

Mark Braund

Mark Braund Is a freelance writer with a specific interest in the prospects for transformative social change towards a more just, inclusive and sustainable society. He also is regular contributor to the Guardian and lives with his family in London

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  • Comment Link Alex Bremer Tuesday, 09 August 2011 08:43 posted by Alex Bremer

    Fascinating article - thank you... but I have to say that whilst I genuinely believe your assertions are pretty much spot on, they jar a little with what I saw from my bedroom window off Lavender Hill SW11 last night: a steady procession of new BMWs, Mercs & the like ferrying looters into Clapham Junction and loading the cars with stolen goods. terrific organisation, all clearly coordinated and scheduled... didn't seem like that feral disenfranchised section of society that needs a hug to me...

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  • Comment Link Mark Braund Tuesday, 09 August 2011 08:59 posted by Mark Braund

    Alex, I agree. I think economic and social exclusion helps create the conditions in which something like this can kick off, but once it starts, and once some people feel they have 'permission' to behave like mindless thugs, they will, regardless of their own situation. That may not be a direct consequence of the economy, but it is a failing of moral education, and I think the two are probably connected. Many of those responsible for the looting clearly have a problem distinguishing right from wrong. I don't wish to excuse their behaviour, but we need to get better at understanding it. Generally, this kind of social breakdown happens only when people whose experience of life is already precarious are expected to make further sacrifies.

  • Comment Link david doyle Tuesday, 09 August 2011 10:25 posted by david doyle

    A lot of people are pushing forward the argument of socio-economic despair, which is of course a massive factor. You call for 'radical restructuring of the economy' to address this... in what form and how is another question, which no one seems to have an answer to.

  • Comment Link JMS1 Tuesday, 09 August 2011 12:08 posted by JMS1

    Mark - excellent piece.
    These events are seemingly not isolated to London or the UK:
    Your comment 'beware of the men with nothing to lose' is correct; here in Spain we have near 50% unemployment amongst the under 25s - I fear all they need is a rallying call - they have nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to in the current climate. There are many countries where we could see what has (is?) happened in London replicated.

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