Nearby a group of young men emerged from Haringey and Enfield magistrates court wielding hammers. They had shunned the temptation of the looted stores to break seven windows in the courthouse.
They burned the probation office too. As you will have heard, there have been riots in Britain; in several cities simultaneously. Police forces have been bussed around the country in a whack-a-mole style effort to put the rioting down. They’ve not had any obvious success, but the rioting has now stopped, and it’s time for explanations. OK, the cynical among you might sneer, but the explanations are necessary if there’s going to be politics, and there does need to be politics, for the alternative to politics is rioting (something nicely expressed here).
The British political right – that is, the current administration – has already decided on its explanation: moral decay. If pushed, they’ll extend this explanation chronologically by dragging in the preceding generation; parents have decayed morally; the rioters are those with bad parents. Actually, I think the Tories et al. are on the money with their moral decay claim: it’s probably true that some time before the riots, attitudes for some were a certain way, and that those attitudes then changed, hence the new behaviour. If you want, call this moral decay.
Trouble is, you’re nowhere further forward with explaining the riots. Saying ‘it’s moral decay, that’s what it is’ equips you with nothing in the way of a guide to action. For that, you need some reasonable theory as to what will block – more or less – the development of pro-riot attitudes. The likely Tory response here – if they respond at all – is more prison. More convictions and longer sentences: ‘criminals whimpering in the dock’. A possible second Tory front is education: school reform. Finally – and probably most egregious – there are the proposed benefit withdrawals. The simple, practical effectiveness of all of these is highly questionable; further, such policies promise social exclusion (life history: expelled from school, denied housing, banished into jail) rather than a fix. Having said that, I won’t get into what the alternatives might be. However, I think it’s worth saying this: if you’re going to debate social policy with Tories, you will need some theory as to what caused the riots. Here, I think some people generally opposed to the right-wingers are tempted to stick – sceptically – to moral decay style non-explanations of their own. I’ve picked up three versions so far. Here they are, very roughly:
(1) Rioters just hate the police. Always have, always will. But rioting in some form has always offered this possibility; the rioting isn’t novel in its police-baiting aspect. And rioting is not a constant. This doesn’t happen every summer. So what’s changed?
(2) Rioters are just indulging in a stupid, dangerous sport, like the Pamplona bull runners. They’ve discovered just how much fun it can be to run from a Jankels armoured car. They would have done it before, if they’d known about it. This falls foul of the same objection as (1); rioting has always – I’d guess you’d all agree – offered the possibility of thrills. It also doesn’t explain the looting of certain sorts of shops, the targetting of a magistrates court, the arson at a Sony warehouse full of CDs and DVDs. There’s information there, albeit in some hard-to-recover form.
(3) The riots are just a new way to steal, like ram-raiding was in the 1990s. Innovation in thievery explains what’s going on. This doesn’t explain the non-thieving (but criminal) behaviour we’ve seen. Looters who’ve taken their loot onto the street and promptly smashed it. Rioters who’ve torched the shops they were in the process of stealing from (arson has been somewhat rare, thankfully).
Those are the reductions I’ve seen. All of them attempt to give the riots their full explanatory basis in the attitudes of certain people; that is, the rioters. I don’t think it’ll work, and as I’ve said, it’s not enough for policy. Not if you don’t want to concede that using tougher / better police tactics and getting rid of those who have rioted by imprisoning them are the only answers.