UK riots then and now: More of the same?

by Joshua Tucker on August 15, 2011 · 5 comments

in Blogs

We are very pleased to welcome the following guest post from Rafaela Dancygier, a political scientist at Princeton University who has studied the causes of urban unrest involving immigrants in Europe.

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Thirty years ago, London was swept by a series of riots causing major property damage and leading to hundreds of arrests. Back then, the main participants in the riots were youths living in ethnically diverse, immigrant neighborhoods. But not all immigrant areas were affected. As I have argued elsewhere, riots were especially likely to break out in areas that were not only hit by economic deprivation, but that were also home to immigrant-origin communities that were de facto disenfranchised, lacking electoral power and local representatives in city government.

One question that has emerged among pundits and scholars alike, is whether the riots that just occurred are similar to the disturbances shaking the capital several decades ago. To answer this question, one must first discard the idea that there is one cause to the unrest, in part because the nature of any given riot is likely to have varied across locations.

There are, however, a set of interesting parallels. Then as now, violence erupted on the heels of severe government cutbacks in services introduced by a Conservative government committed to austerity budgets. In Tottenham, where the initial riot took place, the city’s housing budget was just slashed from £44 million to £15 million, and the youth services budget was cut almost entirely, by 75 percent. Similarly, the initial trigger for the riot was an act of police brutality. Most likely, this event did not occur in a vacuum. Many of the riots of the 1980s (as well as riots in France in 2005 and earlier) were set off by similar events, but they had been preceded by years of conflictual relations between immigrants and the police. Then, politicians and the police reacted with surprise and condemnation. Yet, declassified archives actually reveal that the police had warned the government years earlier that unrest was likely to break out in specific neighborhoods. These documents also show that policymakers and law enforcement were quite unified in their view that economic hardship and discrimination – rather than criminal, alien cultures – were believed to be the main reason for the smaller scale flare-ups that eventually culminated in major riots. Thatcher, by contrast, blamed youths’ “animal spirits.” We see a similar pattern now, where conservative voices – but also those on the center-left – detach the events from the larger social and economic environment and instead focus on the rioters’ lack of morals.

There are also important differences. In contrast to the political situation in the 1980s, ethnic minorities are much better represented in government today. Indeed, Tottenham’s MP, David Lammy, is a second-generation immigrant born to Guyanese parents, and many city councilors in Haringey (where Tottenham is located) are first and later generation immigrants. We don’t know, however, whether achievements in descriptive representation have been matched by policy gains as well. In another major difference, violence this time around – in Tottenham as elsewhere – appeared to be much less discriminating. In the 1980s, participants tended to target buildings and cars that were government operated. This time around, local shops as well as national chains were vandalized. Research about the riots in the 1980s uncovered that initial participants were often quite distinct from those who joined in later once the word of unrest had spread: the former being locals and employing targeted violence, while the latter were more likely to come from outside and to loot and destroy in an indiscriminatory fashion. Given the apparent significance of social media in mobilizing some of the rioters, these dynamics are probably much more salient today, making it ever more important to distinguish between groups of rioters and to understand the morphology of these events before we can come to any conclusions about their causes.

Finally, another significant difference is the reaction on the left. In the 1980s, Labour blamed the Conservatives’ draconian economic policies and the deplorable state of Britain’s inner cities they helped create. Today, Labour finds itself again in opposition, but the party, which has long shed its “loony left” image, has been much more timid in its criticism of government policies. Instead, Labour’s leadership has chosen to focus its response on helping those whose homes and businesses have been damaged and on condemning low standards of morality and lacking parental responsibility. It is therefore highly unlikely that the riots will lead the government to reverse some of the spending cuts affecting the inner cities (in fact, Cameron is considering taking state benefits away from those found guilty in the riots). The one exception, though, may be less severe cuts in policing. Thatcher expanded the police force during a major economic downturn, an action that even former London mayor and political foe “Red Ken” Livingstone now praises. As the dust settles in the weeks and months to come, it will be interesting to see whether the momentary spirit of bipartisanship remains, or whether Labour decides to use the inquiries into the disturbances the party is said to plan to highlight what it believes to be misguided Tory policies.

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