The London Riots: 100 Metres Away

Written by  //  August 11, 2011  //  National Politics  //  10 Comments

Sitting in London as the riots engulf the city and the country for the fifth day in a row, the feeling is a little surreal. I remember the time when I was coming to England three years back- the dreaming spires of Oxford, the House of Lords and Highbury, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, Yes Minister and Fawlty Towers, scones and meringues, those fascinating things that Enid Blyton wrote about, were markers of the England that I knew and heard of growing up in India. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined sitting holed up in London as angry mobs ravaged the city, smashed the neighbourhood grocery store, looted the electronics shop and threatened to demolish anything which caught their fancy. Even in India where violence is pretty endemic, with terrorists, gang war mafia and encounter specialists roaming loose, I had never seen something like this. But having lived here for three years, seen England and its people not through the misty-eyed colonially hungover vision of an Indian conjuring up images of cream tea and test match cricket, but first-hand as a people with living with their own share of societal complexities, financial crises and cultural confrontations, I can honestly say that I was scarcely surprised by what happened. In fact, such a societal implosion was waiting to happen.

The newspapers have already started speculating the reasons for such seemingly spontaneous violence. David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has been quick to describe it as ‘criminality- pure and simple’. But was it really? Is it reasonable to believe that thousands of citizens, ranging from primary school teachers to unemployed youth, life-guards to supermarket vendors (the profile of some of those arrested, though the dominant proportion, as suggested by reports so far seem to be youths, too young to be employed or unemployed) all saw this as an opportunity to engage in simple crime? The violence was most certainly spontaneous, but it seems incredible to proffer a sweeping opinion that the causal factor was the urge for criminality. It could certainly be one of the factors, stealing cigarettes to ensure steady supply for a month, looting IPads and mobile phones and the like to keep up with the Joneses, but the rioting is too widespread for this to be a catch-all explanation. Economic deprivation, societal disparity, poor parenting, underlying societal racism, police atrocities, are all the more serious and complex societal factors that seem somewhere to have coagulated over the last five days resulting in this startling expression of violence. The Prime Minister, by his statement simplified the problem at best and denied it at worst. In reality, the riots are far more serious and subtle than the simplistic summary offered by him suggests.

Neither do I know, nor do I claim to know, why or how the riots happened. However, having lived here for three years, and seen the country as an outsider would, observing two aspects of English society has mitigated my shock at seeing the incidents unfold. The first is a sharp division on the lines of class in England. The England that we see most of in popular media in India (and which most of the English like to believe as a true representation of their country) in literature and in film, of lords and ladies, high table dinners, cricket matches and golf courses, country houses and manors, is only one half the story. A walk through Hackney Downs in the evening, around Shadwell station at any time of the day, in Neasden to the Swaminarayan Temple, on Cowley Road in the outskirts of Oxford, and outside almost any football stadium in the country, before or after a game, quickly dispels any myths of a genteel and civilised country. Large numbers of hooded young men roam these streets- the language is vile, the lack of education visible, and the presence of weapons fairly widespread. In addition, many of these youths happen to be segregated groups of black, Asian or white boys, adding a distinctly racial dimension into an already volatile cocktail of poverty and crime. Seeing these youths channel their energies into the riots seems like a logical next step.

What is astounding to me is not the presence of such people, or even their numbers, but the state’s role in allowing such a situation to develop. It would not be remiss to suggest that in some sense this hooded underclass of English society is the creation of an English state that is stubbornly committed to its welfare state model of free housing, high social subsidies, a generous unemployment dole and an espousal of respect for private life that is extreme and without exception. Per se, it is not my argument that a welfare state and respect for privacy is a bad thing- it most certainly is not. But when you have large sections of society going astray, social benefits creating callousness and sloth and completely failing to create a sense of belonging, and respect for privacy allowing free rein to poor parenting practices, resulting in children grow up in hostile environments, a dogmatic espousal of such benefits and privacy is not representative of high principle, but instead of foolhardiness. As an eyewitness to the riots suggested, sometimes all that these boys required was a good talking-to or a tight slap when they were growing up; having created societal conditions not conducive to the possibility of such measures, England today is paying the price for its own stubbornness.

At the same time, the complete inefficiency of the police force hemmed in by arcane rules, and an officious and overly bureaucratic public culture has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the riots. Irrespective of the merits and demerits of the police itself, which I am wholly incompetent to discuss, a startling fact was that two days into the riots, the police were not authorised to use force of any kind. Belatedly, the Prime Minister authorised the use of water cannons to disperse crowds and plastic bullets, should the need so arise. It seems inconceivable, and oddly romantic, that for the first three days, the powers-that-be expected the police to tackle mobs of rioters only with shields and their presence. It was no wonder then that shopkeepers across London, from Clapham to Ealing, said that the police were completely useless in their task of helping them and instead were primarily concerned with preventing damage to the local police station. And no surprise as well, that it has meant that vigilante groups have sprung up in some parts of the city and all across Birmingham, divided often on racial lines, thereby adding more fuel to the fire.

Respect for human rights and the need to prevent violence is a laudable sentiment. But when the rule of law is so broken that shops and houses are being torn down and demolished with impunity, there is a dire need for the police to respond in a manner that quickly ensures control. For that, some use of force is necessary, both for ensuring mob dispersal as well as spreading the symbolic message that the police are ready to meet violence with violence. I have little doubt that such a stance taken early on would have deterred at least those rioters who were out there to make a quick buck while anarchy prevailed. However, the police’s own mistakes, starting with Charles Menezes, the Brazilian electrician, wrongly killed by them, its excesses demonstrated by the Ian Tomlinson episode, and what is turning out to be its naiveté in killing Mark Duggan to spark off the riots, have led it to being hemmed in by rules to such an extent that it no longer seems like a force to uphold the rule of law but rather a citizens’ service group to try and uphold it wherever and whenever the rules permit.

Britain is not broken today as several newspapers have been quick to suggest. Parts of Britain which were already broken a while ago have today made their presence felt. It is now time for the powers-that-be to get off their public school and Oxbridge high horses and recognise the problems that have festered in their own backyard, instead of dismissing it as pure and simple criminality.

10 Comments on "The London Riots: 100 Metres Away"

  1. John Gomes August 11, 2011 at 6:48 am ·

    vivid, yet so true

  2. Kanishka Narayan August 11, 2011 at 11:13 am ·


    I think much of this is to be disagreed with. Pending a fuller response when time allows, I’ll plug a couple of pieces and points which I think venture in the right direction:

    1. Pretty much most of this is, I think, right. Especially, points 2 and 3.

    2. On policing, I am a pretty big fan of the British model. I am particularly surprised by your comments given our awareness of the Indian context and of a police force that is not as “hemmed in by rules”. I just don’t think one can simply apportion blame onto “arcane rules” (are they really that arcane? is proportionality that obscure a standard?). And I definitely don’t buy the argument that the British model displays an unpragmatic, blind credulity to rules. Anyway, to make some of the decision-making procedures less arcane, Hugh Orde has helpfully written in the Guardian:

    (Btw, it is interesting that having found yourself “wholly incompetent” to assess the merits and demerits of the police, you go on to suggest the need for more robust policing :P)

    3. “It is now time for the powers-that-be to get off their public school and Oxbridge high horses and recognise the problems that have festered in their own backyard, instead of dismissing it as pure and simple criminality.” I just want to say that ‘broken Britain’ has long been Cameron’s phrase. I also think it is unfair to claim that he is dismissing this as mere pure criminality (again, on this criminality vs. deeper sociological explanation, Kenan Malik’s 3rd point is quite pertinent). If you give Cameron a fair and comprehensive reading, there is clearly an admission of, in his words, “not just broken, but sick Britain” (a pretty awful phrase, tbh). This morning, Grant Shapps, the Housing + Communities Minister, also made a clear note of some of the sociological factors that you briefly allude to. I just think latching onto one comment is opportunistic analysis, especially when delivered on the rhetorical stilts of a concluding snipe as stale as one about public schools and Oxbridge.

    4. This is much more vehement a riposte and forceful an expression of support for David Cameron (for a Labour/pre-coalition Lib Dem voter) than I set out to write. Which I think is in itself interesting – since having moved from India, and increasingly upon my visits back there, I find myself more and more drawn towards the “stubborn” British recourse to a welfare state and all else that you criticise in that paragraph about the welfare state and reverence for privacy. It is really quite interesting that your stay here has made you go in the opposite direction…..

  3. Harsh August 17, 2011 at 9:37 am ·

    Great piece! it was indeed shocking to see the cops watch helplessly as mobs burnt down shops, you suddenly realized how well equipped other nations can be to deal with a crisis like this! Just a random thought: it seems to make logical sense now to observe how the western world imagines the reaction of the public at large in almost all apocalyptic fiction, where few survive, there s just anarchy, loot and chaos. all pent up inside and it all just waits to get out. Welfare state and too much privacy to deal with it.

  4. Neha August 19, 2011 at 12:28 pm ·

    I am in complete agreement. When I read about the riots, it didn’t surprise me at all. All the while I was there, this was something I expected would happen. There was too much underlying aggression and hostility. It had to erupt sometime.

  5. Arghya August 20, 2011 at 10:12 am ·

    Thanks Harsh, I agree with your observation completely.

  6. Arghya August 20, 2011 at 10:13 am ·

    Yes, I think the country’s fortunate it wasn’t worse because I think it could have been, given the frustration that’s pent up amongst large sections.

  7. SSG August 22, 2011 at 6:19 am ·

    Dickensian London with its fair share of Fagins has not been forgotten.
    Like you was not surprised but maybe it was natural to be disheartened, for my generation like yours has also grownup with Monopoly houses on Park lane and Mayfair and Enid Blyton’s picturesque details in the Famous Five or the Malory Towers series.
    Let there be peace.

  8. Arghya December 4, 2011 at 6:40 pm ·

    Kanishka, in response to your well-articulated assertions in the comment, my points are below:

    1. I agree with points 1, 2, 3 and 4 of Kenan Malik’s points in the link you’ve posted. In fact, these points are just platitudes and it would be hard to disagree with them. Point 5 is an assertion which he doesn’t care to substantiate so am not sure how I can either agree or disagree, just that I remain flatly unconvinced. He might as well have said anyone who doesn’t agree with him is dangerous. That would be equally meaningless but at least more frank.
    2a. I am not sure what you mean by a “British Model” of policing. If there is such a model, I would be keen to hear what it entails. My points were specifically focused on the actions of the Met in the first 2-3 days in London afte the riots broke out, during which they were slow, inefficient and wholly incompetent.
    2b. It is precisely because I am aware of the Indian system of policing that I have realised that both over-regulation and under-regulation are ills as far as the police are concerned. And just because I claim that the police in Britian suffer from excessive regulation, does not mean that the panacea is to under-regulate them. It is merely to find a more optimal mean which does not compromise their efficiency. That does not involve of course giving them a free hand and allowing them to go berserk. That is most certainly not my position.
    2c. Proportionality per se is not obscure, in fact per se it means nothing. It is a judgment call which has to be taken by those in power. And this is precisely when it gets rendered obscure when those responsible for interpreting it understand it rather peculiarly. Hugh Orde’s piece in this regard is particularly illuminating because it suggests that tactics which work are fast arrests, moving prisoners through the court system fast etc. and not water cannons. But in the very same paragraph he talks about how making arrests in such volatile situations would not be “sensible”. So then what is to be done? Water cannons are not proportional and arrests ought not to be made.
    So then the police must get out on the streets and hope for the best. Which seems to pretty much capture what they were doing on the first weekend. Proportionality must be given a far more robust interpretation by the police, and not be seen as a doctrinaire construct to basically be interpreted as a last resort use to any form of violence, even if that can save lives and property without taking it away. And I think Orde’s being disingenuous when he says that he takes his decisions based on statistics of interventions which work and those which don’t. That’s rubbish: these are judgment calls taken by people and should be understood as such. Evidence-based policy-making cannot be a catch all kosher answer to anything that goes wrong.
    2d. I think commenting on my locus standi on a wholly misunderstood premiss about advocating robust policing is disappointing. Of course I am wholly incompetent to assess the merits and demerits of the police, as to whether the men and women for the job are fit for it and whether their training has been up to scratch. That in no way has ANY relation whatsoever with my competence to suggest a policy, as an observer, which I think is imperative for effective policing, i.e. a willingness to use force, accountably, if the situation demands it. Your point when reduced simplistically is akin to saying something like only doctors in the USA should be allowed to determine whether Obamacare is good for America or not. I think we should be careful to avoid silly arguments such as this based on locus, especially because they can be freely exchanged on both sides and they will get us nowhere.
    3. Cameron and broken Britain: My motivation for writing this piece was when I heard the statement of the riots being pure and simple criminality. As a statement I think that was way off the mark. And that is pretty much what the piece says. And while Broken Britain is most certainly Cameron’s statement, there is very little evidence that he understands it at all, but rather uses it as a guise to push through some ham-handed idea of the big society.
    Anyhow the short point is that my piece was a response to a particular comment made by the Prime Minister which was dismissive of the riots. And as a commentator I am entitled to respond to anything that catches my fancy. And merely because I do that, does not make an analysis opportunistic. Quite to the contrary, accusing me of an opportunistic analysis based on an inability to grasp the point made, is not just opportunistic criticism, it’s also in very poor taste.

  9. Kanishka Narayan December 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm ·

    Hi Arghya,

    Gosh – it’s been a long time and I had forgotten the force of my comment and not anticipated the equal vehemence of your retort. at the time. The issue is partly in the past now and I don’t want to re-invoke much of the substantive disagreement we have, but based on a cursory re-read, let me just clear up a couple of things:

    1. On contesting your competence – You say: “Of course I am wholly incompetent to assess the merits and demerits of the police, as to whether the men and women for the job are fit for it and whether their training has been up to scratch. That in no way has ANY relation whatsoever with my competence to suggest a policy, as an observer, which I think is imperative for effective policing, i.e. a willingness to use force, accountably, if the situation demands it.”

    My comment: The point I had made over the summer in this regard was largely tongue and cheek and I am sorry if you took offence – certainly none was intended. But even if taken seriously, I think you mistake my intention. Of course you are largely right to say that being mostly oblivious about the details of particular policemen or the training they have undergone does not stop you from being a competent commentator on larger policing policy. (Incidentally, you’re largely, not absolutely, right. You say the first has “in no way ANY relation” to the second – surely, there is likely to be *some* correlation between knowledge/interest in details of current police and competence in policing policy. A small and cheap point :P).
    The larger disagreement actually seems to me to arise from a (perceived) ambiguity in what you said in the article. You said “Irrespective of the merits and demerits of the police itself, which I am wholly incompetent to discuss.” In your response to me, you define “the police” in the quoted statement as propriety of existing personnel and existent training practices: “whether the men and women for the job are fit for it and whether their training has been up to scratch”. Now, to an excitable reader like me, that definition isn’t obvious. ‘The police itself’ could equally refer to the entity of the police as a whole, encompassing larger regulatory and policy structures guiding it, rather than a restrictive construal of ‘actual policemen (+training) themselves’. The ‘itself’ in your phrase ‘the police itself’ merely refers back to ‘the police’, rather than its constituent, individual members. The key clarifying move would’ve been to break down ‘the police’. Of course, I took the former meaning. Hence, the point which you see as confused and I see as resulting from an ambiguity (more than these, it was a point, I still insist, made tongue and cheek).
    Your US doctor fallacy reference is an obviously correct one but in light of the above, not one that I think I am guilty of.
    2. On matters of taste: I am sorry that you think any part of my criticism is in poor taste – I don’t quite understand why you think that (which surely suggests that my taste is irrevocably poor :(!). I clearly don’t think this move is opportunistic: point catches my fancy → I use my intellectual ability to comment on it. Indeed, I visit your site because I find that move, when carried out by you, hugely interesting and valuable. I still feel this move, though, is opportunistic: particular comment by member of govt → wider policy criticism based largely on said particular comment (at the neglect of wider + long-standing policy announcements and backed by loaded rhetoric of exclusivity of education). Perhaps we differ in our assessment of how stale the Oxbridge and public schools point is when tagged onto serious analysis on account of our different levels of exposure to that point.
    3. On matters of taste, yet again: you say – “quite to the contrary, accusing me of an opportunistic analysis based on an inability to grasp the point made, is not just opportunistic criticism, it’s also in very poor taste.” As it happens, I tend to disagree. Surely, my inability to grasp your point and my wider ignorance *cannot possibly* make my criticism in *poor taste* – it can only make it, well, *ignorant*. Say you say: 2+2 = 4. I contest you by saying 2+2 = 5, not because I commit an error to antagonise you in ‘poor taste’, but because I really want to engage but am condemned to stupid engagement on account of an inherent inability to grasp the point made. My inability makes it an innocent mistake to be rectified by the better informed, not to be taken with offence by being perceived as an act in poor taste.

    Hope you’re doing well!


  10. Arghya December 5, 2011 at 12:06 am ·

    Hi Kanishka,

    I think we can continue the no-actually-it’s-me-who-was-ignorant-and-didn’t-get-what you-were-saying line of response, because since the response does actually clarify some things to me which weren’t clear at all before.
    It would be best, I think, to agree to disagree on the substantive points and call it a truce on matters of taste. I didn’t take kindly to my analysis being called opportunistic and hence my comment on taste (clarified as chosen line of attack against my argument) but thinking about it a little further and now that a cooler head prevails, I think we have a genuine disagreement over the best way to approach the issue of the riots and diverge because of very different starting points of our respective analyses.

    I apologise if I my response caused any offence; as with your initial comment, you can be certain, it was not my intention.


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