This week an exotic species has raised itself up, jettisoned in from the deprived and blighted peripheries of our nation’s underclass and made themselves visible by robbing Dixons, JD Sports, breaking into stores and essentially producing the most radical mode of rioting for a generation. Britain – as always – is fixated on the short term solution (people are like that here) rather than the long term. Much indignant reaction calls for a 1955 approach: stocks, plastic bullets, death sentences, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key growling contempt and various other colourful ideas for how to control the feral. Social networking sites are awash with sweeping , simplistic comments, which are always the last resort of the stupid. Consequences for actions is preoccupying victims and the societies against which the perpetrations have been carried out, many of whom withstood attacks in boroughs little equipped with money or power to re-establish themselves quickly. In the last five days, moral law-abiding Britain has been brought face-to-face with its own brutal underclass and it doesn’t like it. Not a jot. Peculiarly, attempts to produce explanations for the macro/micro socio-economic conditions which resulted in a fear-free underclass within British society are too often met with attacks of leftist apologism. Rioting in this country is as old as the hills, only this particular episode is so riddled with personal greed and some quite bizarre claims of human rights to materialism – “I deserve that Plasma TV, and yes, let’s steal some watches on Clapham High Street” say the rioters – that moral indignance has, for the moment, overtaken the importance of logical explanation and debate. Rage is understandable, of course, and dangerous as it also carries the fear of vigilante reprisals which, naturally, our government is keen to repress. But rage in the face of lawlessness doesn’t get things done. The law does.
Of course, there is no doubt whatsoever that the rioting is uncivil, terrible, terrifying, indefensible and unacceptable. That is a no brainer, but what is unsavoury is the nature of the discourse, and the keenness for politicians to take centre stage and bitch-slap each others’ faces with left/right blame. Those at the margins of society sort of remain there, dim and invisible to the rest of us, threatening, isolated and disconnected from a political process that continues to allow urban decay to fester away, irrespective of whatever wing that political ethos springs from. The papers have had a field day. They love this sort of thing, which happens on average every 20-30 years in this country, because the British tabloid press are slags for the psychology of fear that they are dedicated to perpetuate, as opposed to common pragmatism or pro-activity. If they have you fearful, they have you paralysed. There is enough fear on the streets should you wish to go and look at some and take some i-phone snaps like everyone else, but The Daily Snail and the The Pun has been projectile vomiting fear like there’s no tomorrow. They would like to convince us there is no tomorrow, the country is sinking into a morass of sports shoes and stolen audio visual equipment , that the majority of people under the age of 20 are destroying society, we are being “swamped” (an extremely key word in the debate surrounding urban decay) by the feral animals in hoods etc etc etc (are you finding this as boring as I am?) whilst reaching further into the lexicon of grammatical poverty. “National Lootery!” screamed The Pun yesterday, implying the whole nation is at it.
What our chroniclers, reporters and journalists owe to this country is to point out that a maximum of – say 2,000 young people in London and – on the absolute outside – another 2,000 people in the Midlands and the North West, have been involved in these riots. Three men in Birmingham have been killed. The BBC reports that the Salford and Manchester riots featured “1,000” people, but I want to scare you a little bit, so let’s say 2,000 to be excessive. That’s 4,000 in total. Let’s take it to the outside and whack on another 1,000 – say, 5,000 people. It sounds a lot, yet in Britain there are 7.5million people aged between 10 and 19. Therefore, an absolute maximum of 0.065% of British teenagers have been involved in the riots in some form. There has been no effort to point out this contextualisation. This is one of the most peculiar and insidious aspects of the British tabloid press: its entrenched and somewhat spastic inability to engage in logical debate, logical debate being something only found in our four broadsheets, and to stealthily fan the flames of “Broken Britain” related paranoia into a spiral of helplessness. These newspapers often do not encourage action of any kind. It is like listening to a national groan, a long wailing of hopeless, constipated grievance. The result is a population being herded into feelings of failure and futility.
However, in the last 24 hours, operation #RiotWombles and #RiotCleanup has brought about a rash of British cleaning, evoking images of blitz spirit and showing inhabitants of all our major cities that have been affected waving cups of tea about and harvesting broken glass and various items for recycling whilst clearing the streets away. An estimated 1 million people in towns and cities have been involved in this voluntary clean-up operation. That’s, for those of you interested in statistics, instead of de-contextualized reportage, is 1.43% of the British population. That’s 22 brooms metaphorically pushed up the backside of every teenage looter or rioter bent on destruction. See also http://www.operationcupoftea.com/ which currently has over a quarter of a million Facebook followers and which sells branded tea products, advocates to “make tea not war!” and advises the population to jolly well stay in and have a brew until the nasty business has subsided. The profits of their branded tea products will go directly to those affected by the riots. If aliens landed on Planet Earth and asked for a generic picture of the English nature, you’d have to be a depressive pessimist to show them pictures of the riots. You’d direct them instantly towards Operation Cup of Tea’s homepage. It tells you so much about English resilience, reaction, psychological regrouping and stoicism. The Huffington Post picked up on Operation Cup of Tea yesterday evening so in the following few days the site is fully expected to go stratospheric.
Urban social decay, broken societies, the detritus of society bent on destruction appearing in the form of rabid hordes of arson-fixated looters first appeared in the 1850s, peaked very highly in the 1880s, 1930s and the late 1970s / early 1980s. You’ll note a distinctive pattern in the economic temperature of these times; riots are recession friendly. Like bailiffs. As soon as the urban spaces were filled by the mid-nineteenth century, having been fuelled by the industrial revolution, an underclass of urban decay appeared as a characteristic of it. Our fears of annihilation, degeneration and bankruptcy have to go somewhere, and for the last 150 years they’ve been directed towards the urban poor, some of which occasionally live up to our fears, often with, as what has happened in the last five days, a staggering audacity and absence of fear in the face of municipal authority which tends to disturb the mainstream population more than the physical action of robbery itself. You’d be hard pushed to find a world city in the West that does not have vast economic disparity. Yet when the facts are viewed coldly none of these societies are literally – or metaphorically – “broken”. The painful alliteration of “Broken Britain” was invented by The Sun in 2002, and became a coarse concertina of a label, in which anything can be sandwiched that corresponds to present representations of social breakdown – teenage pregnancies, the absence of conventional parental units, social deprivation, crime, drug abuse and endemic violence. It has been applied to so many things that it is almost rendered meaningless. We are doing ourselves an enormous disservice if we allow our mental faculties to be “swamped” by the over-arching culture that tells us such baloney as “we are broken”. The dialectics of despair inherent in the concept of being broken serve only to disenfranchise us from the possibility of realizing a different future. In short, it socially and mentally disempowers us. Conversely, “Broken Britain” implies that at some point it was “Unbroken” which doesn’t mean anything. Because it wasn’t.
The strange thing is that underclass, the vagrants, those that exist beyond our normal society, do not and cannot permeate the robust rich commercial and residential heartlands in the centre, i.e. they cannot and do not “swamp”. What they do is smash and grab, violate and terrify randomly – and this is something the authorities constantly seek to curtail – but there is too much long-term fundamental structure and normality in the way we live to sustain further development, to “seep” into conventional societies values, aims and customs. Urban societies co-exist but rarely combine their own socio-cultural codes. Urban spaces are remarkably intricate like that ; we share spaces but are removed, and we see faces yet are strangers to the humans behind them. Many of us in London are no more than 1,000 yards from a crackhouse. But that doesn’t mean we all go inside them. There is no evidence in world history of a mob rule “breaking” through this invisible urban divide and making a fundamentally functional and law-abiding liberal democracy “broken” by usurping its social structure, magistrates, the legal system, police force and the common morality of the man on the street. Political revolution with ballast, money and power behind it may end with the cutting off of a king’s head. But riots do not manipulate in the same way. Further reading (excellent reading) on this can be found in Peter Ackroyd’s London : The Biography in which its section on the London mob throughout the age illustrates the implausibility of a mob “breaking” into a city and literally obtaining it.
An overwhelming majority of people in this country are moral, law-abiding, understand the fundamentals of property, robbery and ownership, and go about their world with noble decency. If that wasn’t the case, this would be Zimbabwe, or operate like the Wild West. And it clearly doesn’t. There is no excuse for riot and destruction and the rule of mob terror. But at least what it does do is provide us with enough hysterical behaviour, thank you very much. We don’t need the newspapers to do it for us too by failing to contextualize crime. We are doing our civic duty if we robustly challenge the manner of reportage, read our history books and look coldly at statistics. Statistics at the Home Office http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk feature year on year crime detection rates in England & Wales, separated by offence type. A comparison of the figures of 2009-10 and 2010-11 show, for example, a 13.1% drop in reported criminal damage but a 4% rise in general theft offences. You see? Calm and statistical. Very helpful. Simples. David Cameron’s speech yesterday has brought some much needed authority and rational reassurance to the country. Decisive action and pragmatism work well in riot situations, but unfortunately he was three days too late, because he was too busy shoving focaccia down his neck in Tuscany, and his speechwriters brought together a series of strong phrases designed to try to get a Prime Minister who had lost his public back into trust.
The truth is: this is an intrinsically decent, robust little island that can and will handle the various nonsenses and nutty things thrown at it. There is danger inherent in the acceptance of the belief that the robbery and violence of a tiny minority heralds an ongoing downward turn of significant national momentum which will lead us into a Wellsian dystopia. This is utterly bonkers. There are urgent issues which must be addressed in various quarters of the country, but pessimism and hysteria is distinctly unhelpful, as ever neat, simplistic explanations for this week’s attacks. Neither is this a time for naivety : it may take years for the social deprivation of some of Britain’s most down-at-heel areas to establish a different sort of destiny for their young. My urge to you is : take a closer look. If there is distaste for logical, and socially contextualized debate, in your newspaper, which renders you with increased feelings of isolation and hopelessness in contrast to crime statistics or the position of Britain, ask yourself why. This is the same country that took to the streets brandishing brooms on Tuesday morning in London, the same country that has so many wonderful things and people which to be proud of, a gracious and decent country that must be championed, that is – in my humble opinion – a frankly fucking marvellous place – and a country whose robust commercialism, culture, traditions and decencies are obvious to see to those who wish to see them. The idea that the fabric of civilized society has disappeared and unravelled is one of the worst bum steers in popular culture in the last two centuries. Travel around rural England, visit ordinary suburbs, and it’s all still there, alive and kicking, making a mockery of all us paranoid townies. London will simply get on with it, host the Olympics, get Boris and his silly haircut waving a torch about and everyone will be blessed with a feeling of patriotism again. Getting up and dusting ourselves off with characteristic tenacity and stoicism and without hysteria is what is in our blood; giving up on a decent country isn’t. Most of us who are not from the edges of British society are magnificently lucky : unlike those that are from the lowest end of the social spectrum, we are not culturally impoverished, we have had the benefits of an education, we have functional parental units with no problems with hard drugs or welfare dependency. We’ve had it all. We are doing that education and those cultural benefits an enormous disservice if we become so philosophically bankrupt that we believe a tiny mob intent on riot have the requisite power to define this country, and take us down with them.
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