The riot has been part of the vocabulary of English politics for centuries. Last week's violence was also a medium for a political message.
In the summer of 1768, a young London docklands worker marched away from the flat-bottomed barges that carried cargo up the Thames and into the annals of English working-class history.
“At eight o'clock in the evening of 9th of May,” a witness deposed at William Hawkins' trial, “going from Swithin's alley to Batson's coffee-house, I saw a croud [sic.] of people carrying a gibbet, on which hung a boot and petticoat, going down towards the Mansion-house.” There was, he recalled, a great “halooing and hiffing.” In the thick of it, he saw the Lord Mayor of London —and Hawkins, “laying about him with a stick.”
Hawkins was part of a crowd that had gathered to celebrate the election to Parliament of John Wilkes, the great radical journalist and politician. Wilkes was arrested the next day; at least six people were killed when a mob of 15,000 seeking to liberate him from the King's Bench Prison was fired at by guards. For Hawkins' assault on the person and dignity of the Lord Mayor of London a day earlier, though, there is no apparent explanation.
England has been contemplating another great “halooing and hiffing” without apparent cause this past week. The media have lamented the mindless violence of the young who looted shops and burnt properties, attributing their acts to a lack of moral fibre engendered by a welfare state.
The riot, though, has for centuries, been part of the vocabulary of English politics, each a medium for a message — and politicians would be ill-advised to miss the one sent out by London's underclass last week.
The language of the riots
“The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” observed historian E.P. Thompson in his monumental work, The Making of the English Working Class, were “punctuated by riot.” There were dozens of risings of the London mob, ranging from localised rebellions to outright insurrections: most famous, the Gordon riots of 1780; the mobbing of the King in 1795 and 1780; the East Anglia riots of 1813; the Luddite attacks on industrial machinery from 1811-1833.
In 1855, for example, militant Christians sought to impose restrictions on Sunday trade: part belief system, historian Brian Harrison has written, which “argued that the working classes were very much in the condition of children [and therefore] the law must aid them in their struggles with temptation.”
London's apprentices, small traders and the working poor allied with middle-class radicals to resist the proposals. Karl Marx, who witnessed the subsequent protests at London's Hyde Park, where a 200,000-strong crowd taunted élites enjoying their customary Sunday ride along the carriageway with “discordant ejaculations, in which no language is as rich as English,” urging them to “go to Church.”
Like the gangs on London's streets these last weeks, the Hyde Park rioters carried no party flags. Nor did they target only those allied with militant Christianity — but the underlying message was clear.
In March 1668, quasi-military columns of apprentices and working men attacked upmarket brothels in London — another riot without apparent cause. In an insightful essay, though, historian Tom Harris has shown that the Bawdy House Riots, as they came to be known, were “motivated by grievances both against the Court and against the policy of religious persecution.”
New York, across the Atlantic, also saw a steady procession of riots through the 18th and 19th century, to do with race, food prices and taxes. In 1788, the city's residents even attacked medical students who were rumoured to be snatching bodies out of graves.
For centuries, such rioters were cast as outcasts on the margins of society. In 1964, though, historian George Rudé's seminal work, The Crowd in History, demonstrated that 18th century British and French rioters were largely representative of the make-up of their communities.
Decades of disintegration
The mob, then, was one of an arsenal of tools available to the poor to gain a share of national prosperity: a shared prosperity that won Britain an exceptional period of social consensus, running from the end of World War II to the 1970s.
‘Swamp 81,' a controversial police operation aimed at stopping street crime in London's Brixton area, marked a decisive breakdown of the post-war peace. Escalating unemployment and rising racial tensions exploded in April 1981, after riots were sparked off by rumours that the police had left a black British stab victim to die. Before the rioting ended, 299 police and 65 civilians were injured, 28 premises had been burned down and 117 looted or damaged, and 117 vehicles attacked.
Later, in the autumn of 1985, Britain's inner cities exploded again. Following the death of local resident Cynthia Jarett during a police search of her home, murderous riots broke out in London's Broadwater Farm. Police constable Keith Blakelock was hacked to death. In Birmingham's Handsworth area, two shopkeepers were burned to death. The right-wing Daily Mail claimed the riots represented a new Britain where ethnic minorities “have totally divorced themselves from any symbol of authority; who are fearless because they hunt in packs.”
The behaviour of Broadwater Farm's residents was, in fact, entirely predictable. Jennifer Davies studied the case of the Jennings Buildings — a tenement that stood, until 1873, off Kensington High Street. In the main Irish migrant labourers, the Jennings Buildings' residents lived in appalling conditions: in 1856, a medical officer concluded that the “pigs in the Potteries [another local slum] were a great deal better off than the men in Jennings.”
Like in Broadwater Farm, Davies notes, it was “not uncommon throughout this period for groups, sometimes of a hundred or more, to confront the police shouting abuse and occasionally throwing stones.”
Enoch Powell, British right wing politician, claimed that the violence in Handsworth foreshadowed the emergence of a Britain “unimaginably wracked by dissension and violent disorder.” He was wrong: the riots only proved that gross inequalities and social neglect spawn violence.
England's feral youth, as more than one commentator has called them, are the products of a society that failed to learn lessons from the 1980s. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher presided over economic policies which rendered swatches of the working-class unemployed — and unemployable. Young people from working class backgrounds were the worst hit. Between 1984 and 1997, employment among the 16-24-year old decreased by almost 40 per cent; it is now estimated that up to 18 per cent of British youth not in education or training are unemployed.
The Thatcher reforms also brought about what could be called a kind of social apartheid: the physical segregation of marginal communities from the social mainstream. Public housing became the perverse of the most vulnerable, after better-off residents were given the option of buying out housing they had previously rented from the state.
From the 1990s, three quarters of new households in public housing were headed by a 16-29 year old, with a heavy concentration of single parents. The proportion of heads of households not in work in public housing rose from 52 per cent in 1982 to 67 per cent in 2007. The CJS notes that public housing estates thus became “an incubator of deprivation, hopelessness and crime.”
In a 2009 report, the Centre for Social Justice noted that many young people — estimates range between 2 per cent and 6 per cent — joined street gangs in search of an agency and self-esteem lacking in their lives. In a study of the London borough of Waltham, scholar John Pitts said some 600-700 young people aged 10-29 were directly connected with gang activity. Most were prospect-less; two-thirds had been expelled from school.
Britain's Labour Party, as it moved to the right in the 1980s in an effort to recapture critical middle-class votes, has ever-less time for the concerns of this underclass — leaving the young poor effectively disenfranchised.
In the recent violence, they found a voice. The BBC's Leana Hosea spoke to two young girls, their tongues loosened by a stolen bottle of Rosé, involved in the arson in south London's Croydon area. “It's about showing rich people we can do what we want,” one said.
London has now deployed 16,000 additional police, and the judiciary has been working overtime: Nicholas Robinson, just 23, received a six-month prison sentence for looting a £3.50 case of drinking water. Prime Minister David Cameron has said he is contemplating cracking down on online networks — and, surreally, even facemasks.
Policing is part of the solution to containing violence, not a panacea. In a thoughtful analysis of race riots in Chicago, social scientist Michael Rosenfeld said neither police deployment levels nor the harshness of their tactics had a causal linkage with the duration or intensity of riots. India's experience bears out the proposition: last summer's violence in Srinagar, where more than 100 young people were killed by police without impact on the crisis, shows there is no foundation to Mr. Cameron's belief that more aggressive policing will make Britain safer.
If there is one lesson for India's élite from the English riots, it is this: they ought to be grateful to their much-reviled politicians, often criticised for pandering to the urban poor, for engaging with the underclass at the receiving end of a profoundly iniquitous process of social change. Political engagement is achieving more than any number of surveillance cameras or armed policemen.