Politics and the UK Riots

August 15, 2011 9:23 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

First things first: the rioting was not a political demonstration. The connection between the shooting of Mark Duggan and the civil unrest that convulsed a nation was so tenuous that we cannot even say the riots were a political demonstration that got out of hand and descended into violence. It was, almost from the very beginning, an outbreak of organised mass delinquency, with the emphasis on thrills, violence and looting rather than economic grievances.

Nevertheless, the abject moral disaffection of a significant proportion of our young people represents a catastrophic failure of our social system. Seen in this light, the riots are in every sense a political matter, and it does not constitute apologism to ask whether such a disaster was not an inevitable consequence of an economic system that condemns a section of the population to marginalisation in education and employment. In short, successive governments have overseen the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. If this was not exactly the poor fighting back, it was at any rate a shocking reminder that ‘Third world’ instability is not just something that happens to other people – and if we, as a country, insist on continuing to go backwards, there is no telling how things might turn out.

Many commentators appear genuinely perplexed by the banality of the looting. ‘They did all of that’, they cringe scornfully, ‘only for some mobile phones or a flat-screen television.’ There is no great mystery to this: Thatcherism has created an underclass in its own image – cynical, individualistic and vulgarly materialistic; and in the very biliousness of the condemnation there is something more than just the wounded pride of the moral majority – there is something like actual shame. These were not hungry people looting for bread, but relatively healthy people looting for high-value material goods – ‘acquisitive looting’, as The Independent rather clumsily put it. If our youth want to so badly to be acquisitive, perhaps it is because we have told them for so long that if you are not acquisitive you are nothing.

But it would be much too easy to characterise the rioters as just so many tracksuited Thatcherite chickens coming home to roost. To the extent that, during its 13 years in power, ‘new’ Labour maintained an essential continuity with Thatcherite economic policies, rejecting the communitarian ethos in favour of dog-eat-dog individualism, this indictment of our nation transcends party divides. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, now faces a singular challenge: at a time when there would be greater electoral mileage in right-wing populism than talk of social justice, it would take a truly bold leader to take a progressive line.


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This post was written by Nathaniel Mehr

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