Tuesday, 9 August 2011

This Is England '11 - Panic on the streets of London

Over the past few days London has experienced a myriad of emotions, brought about by the most fearsome rioting witnessed in the capital in over a decade. Scenes which might otherwise be associated with fearsome conflict in war-torn cities have manifested themselves across London, in areas as diverse as Tottenham, Clapham Junction and Ealing Broadway. Efforts to diagnose the motivation behind these riots have yielded a variety of not particularly helpful partisan political opinion; Ken Livingstone, for instance, chose to take advantage of the distressing scenes to begin his campaign for Mayoral election in 2012 during an interview on BBC News 24. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen yesterday, and returned from his holiday in the United States just in time to be heckled in Clapham by angry, restless residents desperate for answers.

The anarchical conditions haven't been solely confined to the capital, either. Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol all experienced unrest, in a similar manner. Buildings were set ablaze, cars went up in flames, gangs roamed the streets and smashed shop facades before looting the contents. Perhaps the saddest aspect of all the riots is the age of many of these rioters; some as young as 10, many of whom clearly have no stake in society and therefore a disincentive to keep within the boundaries of law and order. An insight into the minds of those perpetrating last night, and Saturday's crimes, is provided by two girls being interviewed on BBC News 24. To witness one of the most saddening, anger-inducing minutes of television in recent memory, visit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14458424.

With fears that fresh violence and destruction could erupt tonight, many small businss owners have taken to boarding up their shops, restaurants, cafes and bars, or just not turning up for work. Unconfirmed reports have claimed that the trouble could spread to areas as far out as Watford, whilst Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd's Bush has allegedly been boarded up and had its security bolstered, according to claims made on Twitter. As for the social networking site, many have been quick to attribute blame to the role of the internet in the events of the past few days. Some disturbances are reported to have been organised via Twitter, as well as Blackberry Messenger (BBM), which has led to calls for both to be shut down.

With events as trauamatic as these, and the highly emotive sights of formerly peaceful and trouble-free communites in flames, and ransacked by those bent on inflicting as much damage as possible on their neighbours, or in other cases unwilling victims, the calls for action have varied in their levels of panic, and extremity. Some immediately beckoned the army into London, a severely draconian and utterly unworkable response to the situation. Other pleas ranged from martial law, to the imposition of a curfew, to immediate execution of rioters, and finally the use of rubber bullets. Thankfully, these calls have thus far been resisted, and the government's reaction has been, if rather pedestrian and initially seemingly unconcerned, fairly moderate.

Naturally, on the left hand side of the political spectrum, the socio-economic causes of these crimes, which doubtless do exist, have taken predominance in the post-riot analysis. Yet whilst the initial protests in Tottenham doubtless had many such reasons, and were in many cases a response to a government bent on reducing the vital support depended on by so many, the events in Ealing and many other areas were merely acts of senseless, selfish, attention-seeking terror inflicted upon the so-called 'rich'. Perhaps shops such as HMV, Curry's, Bang and Olufsen, Panasonic and banks can replace windows and repair the damage, but for small business owners these greed-driven vandals have thoughtlessly wiped out their livelihoods. The sight of an Oxfam store having been subject to attack in Ealing this morning was perhaps the saddest of all the 'morning after' images, but there are many, many more.

So what can be done about these riots, and what will the consequences be for London, and the country as a whole? With half the country wanting these 'thugs' burned at the stake, and another quarter wanting to offer them free music and arts tuition whilst asking them to kindly stop burning things, most simply do not seem to have the right view. Both, I feel, are indicative of the worst type of reactionary, nonsensical knee-jerk reaction we ought to lamentably expect in a crisis. The fact is that these riots will not make the government change course, and ultimately this is why the Conservative dream of ten years in power may have, if you'll pardon the expression, gone up in flames last night. From Cameron's intial hesitancy to his lazy reaction to these momentous events, he has been exposed as rather a weak leader, and in a party normally looked to as, at the very least, upholders of law and order, this won't play well amongst a core of his electorate.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson shouldn't get too comfortable in his throne at the GLA either, as he has been made to appear exactly as many on the opposing political flank have always portrayed him; indifferent, bumbling, incoherent and incapable of affirmative action in a crisis. With Ken Livingstone already on the campaign trail, and Diane Abbott, to her immense credit, immersing herself in her shattered constituency and actually being there on the ground, had a poll been conducted this morning amidst the devastation Labour would be streets ahead. The ramifications for 2012 are massive, and not merely for the Mayoral election. Safety concerns surrounding the Olympics, Britain's open invitation to the world to visit, will take some time to dissipate. If there is to be an end to this any time soon, then the political post-mortem will follow immediately. From police cuts, to the drastic reduction in state assistance, the economic situation and the Conservatives' languid response, Mr. Cameron and his pals will be attacked from all sides. He had better hope that the middle classes, many of whom will have been directly affected by the riots, can trust him to keep them safe, and will stay loyal to a party which promises so much, but at the moment seems to be delivering so little.

As for those who have perpetrated these crimes, I have no doubt that some would interview more eloquently than the two morons featured on the BBC this morning. Many of them have genuine problems, and it is no coincidence that in many areas these riots were socio-economic in character, based on deep-seated grievances and a reaction to a government which offers them nothing besides lectures on the one hand, and a withdrawal of support on the other. It is unlikely that we will ever know just what their motivation was; indeed, one cannot simply offer a blanket solution for all. Some set out to damage a system they felt disconnected from, others to stand up to a government they felt betrayed by, others still to cause harm to communities they have long since ceased to be a part of. Many, however, just wanted to see how far they could push the police, and what they could get out of the disorder. With the Daily Mail wheeling out the 'Broken Britain' tag every time any crime is perpetrated or a regrettable incident occurs, it is hard to sift through all the coverage to find the real truth. Yet perhaps this is exactly what we have no interest in knowing.

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