Should we try to understand the riots?

I wasn’t going to write anything about the recent riots in England as a lot has already been said, most of which probably doesn’t really get it right. There are a huge range of different views, from the BNP’s objectionable attempt to regard these as race riots to Compass’s recent statement that equates the looting of the rioters with “looting” by the banking sector. As much as I have sympathy with Compass’s general ideology, I’m somewhat uncomfortable with their recent statement. There may be a moral equivalence between how the banking sector behaves and the behaviour of the rioters, but there is clearly no legal equivalence. The rioters were clearly breaking the law and deserve to be punished, while the banking sector has (as far as I’m aware) not broken any laws.

A recent comment on twitter did, however, capture exactly how I feel about the riots. To write in my own words (I was going to say summarise, but you can’t really summarise a tweet); nothing can excuse or justify the actions of the rioters but we can, and should, attempt to determine the reasons why such riots have occurred. What I’m finding irritating are those (Theresa May, Boris Johnson, etc.) who keep repeating that the rioting and looting is simply criminal behaviour, pure and simple. Strictly speaking they may be correct, but what precisely are they implying by such a statement. Are they suggesting that a small fraction of the people in any society are simply programmed to behave in this way. They are just waiting for an excuse and there is little we could have done to avoid it. If this is the case, why does it typically occur in socially deprived areas and why are most of those taking part from socially deprived backgrounds. Surely if it’s genetic, those involved would be equally likely to be from any background. Alternatively, they could be suggesting that there will always be people in any society (however equal or unequal) that will feel disadvantaged and every now and again will get sufficiently disgruntled to start looting and rioting. It’s possible, but I’m not sure there’s any evidence to support this.

All that I know is that there is strong evidence showing that after 60 or 70 years of the UK becoming more equal, the last 30 years has seen the UK becoming more and more unequal. The rhetoric of the coalition government has also been extremely negative. They keep talking about the need for austerity measures and the primary way that the deficit will be reduced is through cuts that will largely effect the poorest in society. I can’t claim that the rioting is a direct consequence of this but it does seem quite likely that there will be a sector of society who feel that their lives will be getting worst and that feel increasingly disenfranchised. This does not, in any way, excuse the actions of the rioters but may begin to explain why such rioting has taken place. In a sense, I hope this isn’t the case as it might suggest that more and more of these riots will take place and things will get worse before they get better.


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