The political reaction to the riots has already begun, with Cameron flying back from his holidays amidst increasingly enthusiastic talk of the military being deployed on British streets. Last night the rioting spread out of London and erupted in Birmingham, Nottingham, and if reports are to be believed, Bradford. The reaction of the media and politicians thus far has been a demonstrable sense of not knowing how to react. As one Tweeter put it: “Simply repeating that the looting is ‘pure criminality’ is like telling us the sky's blue. We know that. Why are our youngsters pure criminals?”.
It is a thoroughly dispiriting sight to see large swathes of London engulfed in flames. Widespread looting is taking place and the police everywhere appear overwhelmed by the sheer numbers involved. To make a slightly fatuous comparison, it brings back memories of the school playground on those once-a-year occasions when a sort of mass disobedience erupted, the very psychological stability of the crowd disintegrating as events unfolded.
Jody McIntyre has been sacked from his position on the Independent for allegedly “inciting violence,” after a Tweet encouraging the rioters; calls are being made to shut down London’s mobile phone networks and target those using social networking sites to plan more unrest; and the Etonions leading the country have been forced to fly back from their European villas. I think I failed to mention that the stock market is in freefall, too.
The response of the establishment thus far has been to close ranks. Both Labour and the Conservatives are speaking in a unified voice in a desire to attach themselves to the groundswell of reaction that is surely on its way. Old Labourites who have accepted the “inevitability” of the free-market can be heard dismissing the grievances of the rioters as “not genuine,” rendering true the cliché that what was in the past "a response to injustice" is always in the present "totally unacceptable".
The reaction of most comfortably-off people has been to dismiss the violent scenes as the result of an over-indulged poor, giddy on benefits, feral and spoiling for violence. This impression of the underclass, if you wish to call it that, is acquired from television shows such as Jeremy Kyle and the reactionary press. In reality, most people rarely come in to contact with those languishing on Britain’s inner city estates.
One ex-police officer on television today remarked that the rioters appeared to be motivated by, not so much a cause, as sheer, naked greed. The “greed is good” mantra is about the only thing that has trickled down to the very bottom of society in recent years. As Sean Matgamma points out:
“The deprived young people...have come out on the streets to fight those they see as their enemy, the police, and to grab a little instant prosperity...They live in a society where great robbers and swindlers are admired whether or not they are legal, semi-legal or downright criminal. Where they enrich themselves without any regard for other people.”
It seems quite likely that within a few days the talk will move from reaction to offensive, spurred on, if I can say it without causing confusion, by the forces of reaction. The law-and-order brigade is already making itself visible in the guise of talking heads on the evening news. The rioting will give them the excuse to offer simplistic yet satisfying solutions to the more complex problems of widespread poverty and the resulting hopelessness. There are already reports of black people in London who are wearing new trainers being stopped and asked for receipts, with the threat of arrest hanging over their heads if they don’t provide them.
There is a lot of class hatred swilling around right now; and however unpleasant the looting and destruction of livelihoods is, the truth is that the hatred and spite directed for many years at the underclass is being reflected back at so-called civilised society in the crooked mirror of deprived estates up and down the country.
And therein lies the establishment’s mistake: They thought they could simply write-off the poor and laugh at them on Jeremy Kyle and Little Britain indefinitely. It turns out they couldn't.