What the London Riots Say About the Past, Present and Future of England

Daniel Sampson

"Grab what you can, winner takes all, no wealth is ever too much, this neoliberal amoral creed has reigned unquestioned since Margaret Thatcher." Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, August 12, 2011


“This broadening of the discussion about the causes of last month's near-anarchy is welcome… If our police need greater ethnic diversity, the appointment of a new Commissioner is a good time to tackle it. If we need a more stringent penal policy, as [Justice Secretary] Kenneth Clarke suggests, with payment by results, then the riots provide a case for reform. And if we need radical changes to education, then the spectacle of so many of the rioters, patently unfit for work and unqualified for a job, gives all the rationale needed. The riots showed us Broken Britain and gave urgency to the case to fix it.” The Evening Standard, September 6, 2011


Almost immediately after the first brick was thrown and the first was fire set, British pundits were searching for ways to explain the how and why behind what would become four straight nights of countrywide rioting, the likes of which England had not seen in a quarter of a century. As The Independent reported on August 8, 2011, “A total of 153 arrests were made overnight and early this morning after boroughs in north, south and east London fell victim to the first round of copycat rampages following trouble in Tottenham on Saturday.”


For a news cycle that runs uninterrupted all day, every day, and a political culture in which our elected leaders behave like petulant children squabbling over transitory PR victories, the politicization of the riots was more or less assured.


For those on the right, the unrest was the obvious and inevitable result of decades of far-left social policy that emphasized a softer approach to law enforcement, looser interpretations of the idea of the family unit, and the neutering of teachers, who were now unable to enforce any form of discipline in the classroom for fear of violating their student's “human rights.”


Left-wing observers took the opposing view. The scenes of mass destruction and violence, often perpetrated by individuals barely in their teens, was the end result of the inculcation in people that “the self” was all that mattered, that personal gratification trumped all other considerations, and that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's oft-quoted (and misquoted) dictum, "There's no such thing as society" was playing itself out in the most barbaric manner.


The truth, however, is rarely cut and dry. While cogent arguments can be made for both positions, it seems more likely that this, far from being an either/or situation, was the perfect convergence of both mindsets. There is a sense that simply taking what you want is permitted because a person is only responsible for and to themselves, and the belief that since the police have spent years focusing on community relations as opposed to firmly enforcing the rule of law, they are unlikely to face prosecution for any crimes they might commit.


According to the conservative Daily Telegraph, which interviewed Bill Bratton, a crime adviser to the prime minister, “…many young people, especially gang members, had been ‘emboldened’ by over-cautious policing tactics and lenient sentencing policies.”


In a 1978 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, psychologists Robert S. Feldman and Fred Rosen wrote about a psychological theory known as the Diffusion of Responsibility. The theory holds that an individual feels a lesser sense of personal responsibility for a crime—or other circumstance with a negative outcome—if he is a member of a group of perpetrators, as opposed to committing the crime as a sole actor. This phenomenon explains how otherwise law-abiding individuals, who under normal circumstances would never dream of stealing or destroying someone else's property, get swept up in the adrenalin-fueled rush of a riot and find themselves enthusiastically looting and pillaging as if this behavior were second nature.


Meld this state of mind with the sense that such individuals will face no repercussions for their actions and, further, that what they are doing is, in a sense, justified—or at least a justifiable example of an empowered individual getting what's theirs —and what is created is the perfect storm of self-entitlement and diluted guilt without a fear of reprisal that leads to a rapturous explosion of violence and plunder.


There can be no doubt that a large part of what transpired over those four nights has its roots in an ingrained feeling of futility in the lives of the residents of London and the other affected English cities. As the income gap between rich and poor widens, there is an inescapable feeling that some groups feel their only chance to get ahead is by forcibly taking what they want.


In audio footage on the BBC's website, two teenage females boast of drinking stolen wine early in the morning and that their actions, and by extension the riots as a whole, are "...showing the rich people we can do what we want". Can the owner of a small convenience store, or a fish and chip shop, or the landlord of a pub really be classified as rich? Perhaps it is a testament to how bleak the outlook is for the youth of Britain that those making any kind of steady living are considered the wealthy elite by the self-identified poor and downtrodden.


England has much soul-searching and rebuilding to do. In Croydon, an area of South London, the House of Reeves furniture store stood for 140 years. Surviving the Blitz of World War II, myriad modernization projects, and the customer-draining emergence of the furniture "superstore," this fixture of Croydon life was destroyed in the riots, and all that remains is a burned-out shell. The community has vowed to rebuild whatever is left of the old store, but it remains unknown whether any of it can be saved.


The symbolism is too obvious, and too painful, to point out.

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