What a difference a few weeks can make. In May, the images from London were of thousands of happy people on the streets celebrating a royal wedding. Now it is riots, mass looting and burning buildings, and the police with batons and body armor desperately trying, and seemingly failing, to control the situation. Parts of London look like a war zone. It is not just London; the violence, looting and arson rule has spread to other cities in copycat mode. The UK is suffering a summer of madness.
Shocking though the images are, any notion that this is some sort of revolution should be instantly dismissed. It is not, as some pundits in the UK bizarrely suggest, a UK flip side of the Arab Spring. That shows complete ignorance of what is happening in the Middle East. The UK is not Syria or Egypt. The British rioters have no political objectives — no objectives at all other than destruction and theft. This is anarchy, pure and simple.
It is suggested that these appalling riots are racial. They started in north London suburb of Tottenham after the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old black man during a covert police operation on Thursday. It is not the first time that Tottenham has exploded into violence following the death of a black person involving the police. In 1985, there were riots in which one policeman was killed following the death of a black woman during a police raid on her home. But this time it is clear that the rioters are from all races. Moreover, resentment of the police, which certainly exists in some areas of Britain’s cities, would be presumably directed wholly at them, not randomly. Setting shops on fire and stealing mobile phones and flat screen TVs are not acts of racial fury.
Thursday’s shooting is more likely to have been merely the catalyst that ignited an existing tinderbox of suburban underclass resentment, in much the same way that the 2005 deaths of two youths from a poor Paris suburb, electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation, exploded existing social tensions into mass violence that spread across France.
In poorer parts of Britain’s cities, as in France’s back in 2005, there is certainly social alienation fueled by unemployment as well as by a sense of absolute entitlement to all the material benefits the world can provide, promoted in large part by the media, especially TV. It is a powerful recipe for a bitter envy that smashes out at anything that stands for success, prosperity, order and authority.
Inevitably, there will be those who claim that Britain’s problem can be solved simply through investment in its inner cities. But investment has already been taking place for decades. It has not stopped the alienation. As the 2005 French riots and those of 2007 show, this is not just British problem. But it may be significant on this occasion the violence has not spread to cities outside England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are unaffected. Is that because they are more cohesive societies, that cohesion coming from a strong sense of a national identity (even in divided Northern Ireland)? If so, the prevailing ethos of multiculturalism in England’s cities, already under attack, may well now see powerful political challenges being mounted against it.