A north London carpet warehouse in flames

London was most spectacularly on fire in early August and it was not a Christian revival.  Many of you may have seen pictures of serious rioting and looting and wondered what was going on.  So too did many people living in Britain, as this conflagration seemed to burst from nowhere.

The rioting began a few days after police shot dead a man in north London, in circumstances that still have to be adequately explained, and then failed to give a full account of the event to his family and wider community, who accused the police of operating a shoot-to-kill policy.  A community protest march to the local police station became violent, and outbreaks of rioting rapidly spread to other parts of the city, and then to Birmingham and Manchester.

It is tempting to compare these riots to the disturbances of 1981.  Then there was a fairly new Conservative government making huge spending cuts leading to high unemployment.  There was a tough-talking Prime Minister threatening to be strong on law-and-order and there was a lot of deep-seated unrest in urban centres.  Many racial minorities and working-class people felt marginalised, leading to a sense of despair.  They felt the government didn’t really care about their problems.

 

So was this an action replay?  While this situation seems on the surface familiar, the roots of the past summer’s problems are different.  We must remember that Britain has changed significantly in 30 years and has different problems now.

The cause of the widespread rioting becomes clearer when the statistics are examined.  According to the Home Office there were 2,800 arrests, with 1300 people being charged.  It later transpired that three quarters of the 1000 people who have already appeared in court have a previous conviction or caution, the average number of previous convictions being 15.  One third of them had already spent time in prison for another conviction.  So it would appear that many of the participants were career criminals taking the opportunity to cause some havoc and enrich themselves with some free consumer goods.

A further 20% of the 1000 were juveniles, with estimates that as many as half the people taking part in the riots were school age.  The irony of this is that many of the activities for young people which normally take place during the school holidays have been scrapped this year due to government spending cuts.  Many of the looters used social media to alert their friends and to publish photos of cars they had burned or goods they had looted.  This may well be Britain’s first instance of ‘recreational rioting’.  Millions of pounds worth of property was burned, including shops, pubs, buses and cars, and a lot of goods were looted not only from large stores but also small family-owned businesses.  One man in Birmingham was killed trying to defend his shop.

This situation gives us a good opportunity to reflect that Britain is not a happy place at the moment.  Government cuts are holding wage rises below inflation, pensions reforms are triggering industrial dispute and unemployment has risen to 2.51m.  Nearly a million 16-24 year olds are unemployed.  Despite the fact that the UK is the world’s 6th largest economy, there is a general feeling that we are not as well-off as we should be, and things are only going to get worse.  Against this background, one can understand why people might feel like rioting.

One ray of hope though: in the aftermath of the riots thousands of ordinary Londoners turned up with brooms and bin bags to help clear up the mess.  Someone even set up a website to link volunteer cleaners with clean-up events.  The spirit of the Blitz lives on.