Riot culture: let’s stop pretending there are any easy answers

11 August 2011

10:22 PM

11 August 2011

10:22 PM

I had a call from a researcher on the Jeremy Vine show this week to ask me to go on and
talk about the riots. Would I be prepared to say that shopkeepers should not be closing their shutters early and that we should all be reclaiming the streets. I had a vision of being set up against
a poor shopkeeper afraid of having his livelihood destroyed. So I used those words every radio and TV researcher dreads to hear: “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” I
could almost smell his disappointment over the line. I explained that I wasn’t just a political journalist, I also ran a charity which had been running a pop-up shop in north London. Just
that afternoon we had decided to shut early because we felt it was important to protect the staff and let them get home before the evening. At the same time, I said I thought it was important for
people to show solidarity and that some sort of reclaim the streets march, as suggested by Sarfraz Manzoor, was something I felt I could sign up to.

I can’t help thinking that the confrontational approach of most news outlets has not been helpful in this situation. Deborah Orr was right to say that we should put aside petty political squabbles. Watching politicians knock chunks out of each other is very
unedifying, as the Harriet Harman/Michael Gove and Diane Abbot/Sayeeda Wardi arguments on Newsight have shown this.


This should be contrasted with the discussion between former Cameron speech writer Danny Kruger and Guardian journalist Zoe Williams, whose article on the psychology of the riots everyone should read.

I have had the pleasure of working with Danny and his excellent Only Connect charity. He is someone with the political courage to put the
philosophy of the Big Society into action. His discussion with Zoe Williams was sometimes heated and there was no doubt they disagreed about what should be done, but at least they were talking
about solutions.

I appeared opposite Fraser Nelson on the BBC News Channel this week and, as often happened when I was at the New Statesman, we found much to agree on. For instance, we agree that David Cameron has
found his cause, the riots illustrate his “broken Britain” thesis perfectly. Where we disagree is on the solutions. I do not share Fraser’s faith in the government’s school and welfare
reforms, which I believe are a form of right-wing utopianism. They might work, but it’s a stab in the dark. I believe a more general youth policy is necessary, with the new Work Programme and
apprenticeships geared to making young people employable.

But again, at least we were discussing solutions.

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Show comments
  • daifromwales

    There are, and will always be, poor people. Sometimes it their own fault, though probably rarely. More often it is bad luck. Many were born without enough intelligence to succeed in a society that values education above all else. (So a brilliant hairdresser cannot get the qualifications her potential employers must see because her literacy skills are not good enough. WHY? Intellectual snobbery and the dictatorship of the self-serving education industry.) Many were just plain unlucky.
    In cities with the population numbers we have in the UK, poverty will always, regrettably, affect many thousands of people. Indeed, once poverty is defined by a socialist relative measure, it can by definition never be eliminated.

    It is not an excuse or even a necessary precursor to robbery on the scale we have just seen. All that is needed for a good riot is good, hysterical information and encouragement (provided conveniently minute by minute by the BBC) and good communications (available courtesy of stolen mobile phones via the telecoms industry).

    Social problems do exist – but as for causing the riots – that is rubbish. And so-called ‘solving’ of a problem that has accompanied competitive human beings since the dawn of time is not actually possible. More’s the pity.

  • Nicholas

    I’d be happy if Britain just stopped pretending full stop.

  • Baron

    Clear Memories, sir, but we wouldn’t have either dead law abiding, or dead scums, that’s the beauty of allowing the law abiding to bear arms, the mere knowledge that they do would be very often sufficient to keep the scum in check, prevent them, as they now do, killing the today’s unarmed law abiding.

    and another thing:

    Bunnykins, sir, you don’t like Andy, the carparking giant, you haven’t grown up yet, give yourself another ten, twenty years, then talk.

  • Bunnykins

    Andy Carpark are you, perchance, a working class ferral yob, the likes of which Bob so thoughtfully describes – you know, the type that hates everyone? Seems a thin line between your rudeness which hides under the cloak of the internet and the type of nihilistic behaviour that’s under discussion in Martin’s post.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    A good article by Matthew Norman in today’s Independent. He seems to recognise the very limited power that elected leaders have in a democracy. Maybe the next step forward in social understanding is that more and more people start to recognise this, and that there develops the slow realisation that democratic politics is powerless if we see in it an opportunity to divest ourselves of the individual responsibility for the health of the society in which we live.

  • Clear Memories

    Actually, there is a very simple answer – as a nation, we have to dump political correctness and its associated social utopia.

    Then hand back the right (I emphasise, the right) to bear arms and use then for self-defence. The so-called rights of criminals are all false rights and have no associated duties. The right to bear arms has the associated duties to use them in accordance with the law and to be competent. After all, we don’t want injured scum.

    We want dead ones.

  • paulg

    Well I have just read the most idiotic piece of nonsense in CiF, honestly, if you people had any intellect you would be ashamed of yourselves.

    A sequence of random events put inside a logical structure, makes a coherent argument for those who dont wash their necks: eventually, the grime turns to brass.

    I would feel insulted if I actually bought that rag.

    Just because you can read doesnt mean to say you understand,embarassing drivel.

  • Charlie

    Many of the rioters lack the education and attitude to start an apprenticeship. If one is going to work with a 240V supply or larger, then a mistake can kill. Who would trust working on scaffolding erected by these rioters?

    To become a crafstemen requires certain skills; a sufficiently well developed mind capable of learning, patience, an ability to accept criticism,to work as an individual and part of a team, self-disciplined, willingness to pursue excellence, a willingnes to accept responsibility, initiative, motivated etc. etc. Someone with a could not care less, near enough is good enough and slapdash approaches to work cannot become a craftsman because they lack the mentality.

    What the rioters should be offered is one years hard labouring with numeracy and literacy training. Manually clearing out ditches, especially in winter would be excellent training. During the year of laburing their attitude to work would be judged. If they are indifferent to achieving required standards, which will be set at a high level; then they will be back squadded. The daily output of the rioters should be set at that achieved by a physically fit labourer. If they pass, they can be offered an apprenticeship.

  • Baron

    daulat ram, listen sir, as Baron keeps pointing out, what the bankers did was indeed despicable, but they did it because their judgment was wrong, they didn’t set out intentionally to cause mayhem, destroy livelihoods and stuff, an awful judgment ain’t a criminal offence, breaking into a shop, stealing stuff is.

  • Kevin

    Andy Carpark has a way with words. It reminds me of the one moment in all this trouble that made me laugh – the Enfield posse member who screamed into the camera, “You wanna riot in us? We’re gonna riot in you, mate!”Andy Carpark has a way with words. It reminds me of the one moment in all this trouble that made me laugh – the Enfield posse member who screamed into the camera, “You wanna riot in us? We’re gonna riot in you, mate!”

    That should be our new national motto. This is my attempt at a Latin translation:
    Vultis tumultare in nobis? Tumultabimus in vobis, amice!

    That should be our newcnational motto. This is my attempt at a Latin translation:

    Vultis tumultare in nobis? Tumultabimus in vobis, amice!

  • daulat ram

    What about the infinitely more harmful rioters, those who indulge in financial speculation that destroys hundreds of millions of livelihoods?

    What is the answer to THAT rioting?

  • John Thomas Scopes


    Indeed so sir.

    One of the key unasked questions of the mainstream party representatives, both Parliamentary and local, is where they were when their constituencies were burning and why were they not standing with and physically leading their communities.
    The moral and physical vacuum they inhabit was cruelly exposed by the imams and EDL.

    Every elected politician should be asked by their representatives;

    “Where were you and what did you do during the riots”?

  • Baron

    Martin, Baron’s talking about Mark Steyn, not only do my postings fail to appear, they won’t leave my PC when I click ‘post a comment’ if the posting has a link to his site.

    have you already reached a stage where you censor people?

  • I S

    Martin – I was thinking of submitting it under the pseudonym of Emily Maitlis. I believe the simpering queen of bien pensant Hampstead dwellers may well outrank you.

  • Martin Bright

    Sorry, I don’t know who the previous poster is talking about. Happy to help if you can be a little more specific.

    As for the Private Eye threat, I’m sure you understand that I will pull strings with my high-level friends in the media to stop that happening

  • Baron

    Martin, why has the Spectator stopped any linking with pieces by the guy who used to work for you, has published a book recently?

    tthis is a genuine, not a trick question, will you be kind and answer it?

  • I S

    I am seriously considering submitting this entire post to Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye.
    The incessant name-dropping, the guff about reclaiming the streets, the laughable faith in he and his coterie of well-connected, disconnected bubble-dwellers could arrive at a panacea.
    Truly risible and contemptible.

  • I S

    ACP – brilliant 1st para!

  • Mark Gordon

    Were it not for the comment of Mark Granville I would not have, uh, ventured to contribute to the discussion. No one else was even close to my sentiments. Look here maties, I am a Yank living 40 years in neutral third world territory. All I know of the riots I learned from the BBC. From one evening’s news I gleaned the following:

    1) The reporters were so artistically hog-tied with politically correct knots they could give no factual information of the culprits. They would not say whether they were old or young, white or black, and even the male or female thing seemed to push the envelope of politically correct disclosure.

    The few quotes reported from the rioters were antipodes apart. They were going to show the rich and the authorities that they could do what they wanted to. And they proved it to their simpleminded satisfaction.

    Conlusion: If civil expression in English society has become more constrained than it was in the late sixties and early seventies when I lived there, it is no bleeding wonder that people are rioting. They are young and they are mindless but they are not yet dead.

    It is my impression that only the aristocracy is allowed in language to get close to the bone. A grave error.

  • Baron

    John Thomas Scopes: “A legally sanctioned ability and willingness by police and private citizens to use lethal force in defence of their and their neighbours’ personal safety and property would effectively confine such behaviour to the dustbin of social history”.

    Spot on, sir, and if those in charge ain’t careful, the great unwashed will opt for it without the consent of the law. Madness.

  • JohnBUK

    Look, I’m sorry but we’ve had decades if not centuries looking at this issue and haven’t found the answer yet. We have a problem NOW, so unless you’re confident of coming up with the right answer in the next day or so (could be a first) then how about we deal with it in an unsophisticated way in terms of human motivation. After all we can virtually guarantee that if we shot everyone who broke the law crime would go down – yes because there would be less and less career criminals but also because those thinking of joining in will be less likely to.
    Now of course I’m not suggesting we be quite so unkind to these poor souls but you get the drift surely? Or we could have another enquiry, we could could get the State to put together a “whole raft of measures” of mentors/socialworkers/outreach consultants (you name it) and hand out lots of cash, hug a few hoodies, whatever, and see if it works this time. But, you know what, even if you unwittingly had the best solution ever, it would fail – do you know why? Because we would be relying on the “State” to deliver it. Would you rely on the State to save your life? Nor would I.

  • John Thomas Scopes

    “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

    No. It isn’t.

    A legally sanctioned ability and willingness by police and private citizens to use lethal force in defence of their and their neighbours’ personal safety and property would effectively confine such behaviour to the dustbin of social history.

    And what would lberal journalists have to talk about then. The fiendish, progressive extirmation of the feral underclass by the gun-toting mortgage holders of Eltham one supposes.
    Still, far better to hold a summer walk reclaiming the streets than actually seek the repatriation of any right of personal and communual self defence from the police and politicians frantically seeking to excuse the their failures by blaming everyone but themselves.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    “PS ‘I appeared opposite Fraser Nelson on the BBC News Channel this week and, as often happened when I was at the New Statesman, we found much to agree on.’ No, really? Knock me down with a feather.”

    ACP. always a pleasure to read. When you’ve finished deflating him, can I have a kick?

  • Mark Glanville

    It strikes me that some media response to the riots is not unlike their reaction to climate change – guilty, middle-class hand-wringing and mea culpaing. Though not an expert, I can see that there have been many occasions in the past when the climate has become dramatically hotter or colder without any help from us. Similarly there will always be those with a proclivity to riot and every now and then circumstances will conspire in such a way as to give them the opportunity, without need of help from politicians, teachers, parents or anyone else. Those of us still around in 2043, or whenever it is that the next urban flare-up occurs, watch out for more chest-banging and oy veying from the guilt-ridden, liberal elite.

  • Andy Carpark

    That you think that pampered media class termagant, Zoe Williams, has any authority to pronounce on ‘the psychology of riots’, however construed, tells us everything we need to know about you. Except perhaps that you and she were ‘discussing solutions’ and therefore were chastely and customarily au dessus de la melee.

    Modern day Bloomsberries. If their lily white consciences are unsullied then god is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

    PS ‘I appeared opposite Fraser Nelson on the BBC News Channel this week and, as often happened when I was at the New Statesman, we found much to agree on.’ No, really? Knock me down with a feather.

  • Simon Stephenson.

    “So I used those words every radio and TV researcher dreads to hear: “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.” I could almost smell his disappointment over the line.”

    So demonstrating the fatuity, and the inadequacy, of the modern presumption that the only discussions that are of broadcastable quality are those whose content has been restricted to the size of a fag-packet, by ignoring all but the most direct consequences.

  • In2minds

    “let’s stop pretending there are any easy answers” –

    So shall we throw money at it, yes or no?

  • Bob

    I have read Zoe Williams anlysis and it is mostly nonsense. It comes from a middle class perspective that is appalled by the aesthetic of poverty and cannot understand that some people wallow in it.
    There are individuals born into poor circumstances who realise that they must make themselves useful to society in order to get out of it. These are in a majority, they don’t protest or riot, they get themselves educated in whatever form suits them (formal academic education is not the only ticket to a fulfilled life)and get work either as employees or setting up their own business. Academically minded commentators never seem to mix with these people or know of their existance and yet there are probably millions of them.
    There are others caught in the poverty trap because they are physically or mentally disadvantaged, these need help but probably don’t know how to get it.
    Then there are those who have no intention of escaping the aesthetic of poverty because they have moulded it into their identity. Generally these people, to put it simply hate everybody, they are incapable of empathy with other human beings and will turn on anybody even family and friends at the drop of a hat.They wallow in poverty because it gives their lives meaning however warped that might be. They are viscious and it always amazes me that middle class liberals just cannot seem to realise this. Perhaps it is because they never come in to contact with them. How they have become like this, I do not know?
    I realise that I have painted a very simple picture but then so does Zoe Williams and her contemporaries. But then they have been conditioned by the two dimensional academic mindset they have acquired and follow its narrow constraints. Do they ever consider that they might be wrong?

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Show us a solution that works. Because everything you suggest, everything tried before, has failed. More moner nad more help are not the answer. We, and I mean both sides, have been enabling this stuff for years, for decades, inn fact for centuries. The mob carries on. People misbehave because they can. Or think they can, without consequences. That’s why a lot of the criminals brought up in court are not youths, are not unemployed, and definitely are not poor. This is not the time for more of the usual hand-wringing. I suspect that the media this time in their finger-pointing tribal rituals are completely out of tune with the general public, even in the ghettoes, where the majority of people are not involved in the looting and arson (riots is not an appropriate handle) and recognise out-of-control criminality when they see it.

  • Baron

    Martin, please give up on the pseudo-liberal utopia you inhabit, the last thing we need is another costly youth policy, strategy, programme or whatever, we’ve had enough of the crap till now, look what happened.