The heatwave is on and reports of London’s crime wave are widespread, with crime up dramatically in the last year: could a repeat of the 2011 riots be on the cards? Predicting riots is tricky but sometimes there are clues: the weather plays a part; and so too does the economy, community cohesion, social morals and other factors that can combine to lead to outbreaks of widespread disorder, just as they did seven years ago on the streets of the capital.
Of course, 2011 wasn’t the only time people intent on violence have taken to the streets of Britain in recent years. The 1958 race riots, the ‘summer of 1968’, further race riots in 1976 and ’77, Brixton in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, Poll Tax riots in 1990, Brixton again in 1995, anti-capitalist riots in 2000 and the Bradford riots in 2001: each were sparked by different reasons, but what they demonstrate is that riots in Britain are actually relatively frequent. Between the turn of the millennium and the anti-capitalist protests of 2010 and the summer of 2011, there was something of a quiet patch. Now that seven years have passed since those events, though, here is a worrying thought: widespread disorder in the capital could be overdue.
The government is doing little to help make a repeat of 2011 less likely. Police numbers in England and Wales have fallen by 20,000 in the last eight years. This has contributed to an increase in crime; moped muggers, for instance, have proliferated for a simple reason: their chances of getting caught are slim. Even when repeat offenders are apprehended, little is done: a police officer recently revealed that some teenage thieves are arrested up to 80 times while still avoiding prison.
Falls in the number of officers have also damaged trust in the police and affected intelligence gathering at a local level. If the seeds of disorder are taking root, officers simply won’t know about it. If a riot breaks out, it will also prevent police from working quickly to quell trouble. In 2011, officers from outside the capital were drafted in to stop the rioting. The cuts in police numbers mean that, seven years on, many of these extra officers simply no longer exist.
Have the police learned the lessons from 2011? Back then, an unofficial policy of deescalation was in play. This led officers to adopt a softly-softly approach when the riots broke out, fearing that the use of force could make the disorder worse. This backfired badly: only when the police took a tougher approach did they finally bring the trouble to an end after several days.
Yet rather than ditch this unwise attitude for dealing with troublemakers, treading carefully is now institutionalised in the police and criminal justice system. The consequences of this have become clear in recent years. As stop and search has declined, there have been serious spikes in gun, knife and gang related crime around Britain.
This unwillingness to confront troublemakers also has a devastating effect on breaking the cycle of reoffending. In 2011, most rioters who came before the courts had committed an average of 11 previous offences; 84 rioters had over 50 previous convictions. This broad pattern of re-offending has continued, with overall re-offending rates staying around 30 per cent since 2005 and youth re-offending rates even higher, at over 40 per cent.
Failure to tackle gangs is another reason why fears of a repeat of the 2011 riots might not be overblown. As a member of the 2011 government riots panel, I found that many council and police chiefs that I encountered were in denial about the role of gangs. Others in the left wing press also shared this mistaken view: a Guardian article written in the wake of the violence was headlined: ‘London riots are not the work of organised gangs’, in spite of all the evidence otherwise. Yet it was clear to those on the ground – as I was, in my work at the Boxing Academy, a charity in Tottenham for excluded teenagers – that a pervasive gang culture was a main cause of the riots.
In the United States, when it was plain to see that gang problems had spiralled out of control, Barack Obama addressed some of the driving factors, pointing out how father absence led to higher rates of crime and, ultimately, imprisonment. But despite Obama’s position as a liberal icon, his plea still fell on deaf ears; nearly ten years later, many of the problems he referred to have continued.
Yet in the UK, rather than try to adopt a similar approach and tackle gang culture head on, the response is all too often one of denial. And those who do try to probe the root of gang culture often find themselves being labelled as racist. It is safer still, it would seem, to ignore the problem and pretend that it will go away. But as the spike in violence (knife crime rose by 16 per cent last year) has shown, it doesn’t. If widespread violence does break out in London this summer it is certain that the failure to properly stand up to the gangs – who contributed to much of the mayhem in 2011 – will be a contributing factor.
There is also an absence of politicians willing to confront the damaging culture of grievance – and blame – that has been allowed to take hold. Almost every school I visited as a Conservative party representative in 2015 contained a vocal majority of students who claimed they had no hope and no future because of cuts, inequality and, in some cases, discrimination. Yes, no one can pretend that Britain is perfect, yet this culture of victimhood, which can so easily lead to social unrest, misses the truth about Britain. In London, for example, the unemployment rate among 16 to 24-year-olds is now less than ten per cent; many immigrants of all ethnicities risk their lives to come to Britain for a simple reason: the UK is a place of huge opportunity. All too often, though, this gets ignored.
It is also worth remembering that those who rioted in 2011 were not, despite what some might claim, acting out of desperation. The truth is that those genuinely living in poverty in London, or elsewhere, simply did not riot. Countries around the world with similar – or even worse – levels of inequality to Britain, such as Canada, Japan, or Hungary, have also not seen the type of pointless violence which broke out on the streets of the capital seven years ago. This suggests that the rioting and looting we saw in 2011 had less to do with poverty or legitimate causes, and more to do with manufactured grievances which are, sadly, all too common among many in the younger generation in Britain.
If this is the case, it’s a troubling thought: the language of politics has become even more divisive since 2011. Tory is a dirty word and the far left lays the blame for all of society’s wrongs at the door of the Government, whether or not the Conservatives are actually to blame. Labour’s leaders don’t help matters here: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are no strangers to whipping up the mob or downplaying civil unrest when it does break out. Their advisors and acolytes go further still: Seumas Milne said the riots were a form of expression; another believed they were justified. In the wake of the tragic and horrific Grenfell Tower fire, some Labour politicians descended into apparent conspiracy theory to whip up anger at the government, regardless of the facts. This all contributes to a climate in which the prospect of civil unrest becomes much more likely.
Of course, the truth is no one knows when the next major riot will be. But there are reasons to fear that violence will break out sooner, rather than later. The ability of the police to deal with rioting has been reduced and the criminal culture that drove the last riots is festering. One thing is sure, though: if riots do break out, it’ll be the innocent and the poorest who will, once again, suffer at the hands of criminals for whom others will make excuses.
Simon Marcus was an advisor to the coalition government