Politics and Governance in the UK

Second edition

by Michael Moran

Update 33 – January 2012

Riots in the UK

The riots that occurred in a number of (mostly English) cities in August were the most serious breakdown of law and order on the English mainland since the Brixton riots of April 1981. Since then, many attempts have been made to explain their essential character. Timeline 13.1 on pp. 242-3 of Politics and Governance in the UK, 2nd edition, should make us wary of offering any single explanation of what happened. The title of that timeline (‘Violent political participation: as British as Barnsley bitter’) makes the point that violent participation is nothing new in UK politics. Moreover, the very wide range of examples in the timeline show that historically violent incursions into public space have taken many forms, ranging from criminal vandalism to the most purposeful radical demands – and sometimes have involved criminal vandalism in the pursuit of purposeful radical demands. That diversity should make us wary of expecting the riots of 2011 to conform to any single template.

In the case of the Brixton riots we had a thorough officially commissioned inquiry conducted by Lord Scarman1. Despite the volume of interpretations of the August riots offered by Ministers we have had no comparable official investigation for 2011. However, The Guardian newspaper and researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science have now collaborated to produce the most intensive study of the riots, and of the rioters2. For anyone who wants to make sense of what happened the short (40 page) report is now essential reading. But it should not be taken as the last word on what happened – and nor will it. Reading the Riots stresses the importance of poverty, and a legacy of bad relations with the police, as causes. But at a rancorous conference at LSE to launch the report the Home Secretary Theresa May rejected that account and argued that the evidence from apprehended rioters showed that initial official diagnoses – that the riots were an outburst of criminality – were in accord with the evidence.

Part of the difficulty with establishing an agreed account is that the evidence is so incomplete and contradictory: there is the evidence of the large-scale destruction of property in the actual events themselves; and there are the more considered reflections by some of the rioters after the event, which is what Reading the Riots heavily depends on. Reading the Riots is a major contribution to our understanding of what happened. But an account which relies so heavily on what participants tell us about what they were doing after the event, has obvious limitations – and it is these limitations which defenders of the ‘criminality pure and simple’ interpretation fasten onto.

But a more fundamental problem still is exemplified by the Timeline referred to above: how to understand incursions into public space. For about sixty years after the end of the First World War – roughly from the first emergence of the Labour Party as the main party of the left – official Labour provided the natural channel for radical protest in the UK. If we look at the Timeline it is striking how common was violence before the First World War, how comparatively uncommon it was in the sixty years or so after the end of that war, and how far it has reappeared in recent decades. The decline of Labour as a mass party, and the growth of forms of political participation outside ‘official’ channels, has made the meaning of ‘participation’ much more uncertain, and has blurred the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ participation. Looting shops, burning cars and attacking fellow citizens are all morally reprehensible. But they are also indubitably, at least in the context of the August riots, modes of political participation: that is, incursions into the public arena. That is what the Timeline tells us: we have returned to a world where participation in politics in the UK can take a variety of often undesirable forms. And precisely because participation is now so various, and often violent, we cannot expect to have settled understandings between all parties about what is going on.

1 Lord Scarman, The Brixton Disorders, 10-12 April 1981. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

2 Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s Summer of Disorder. London: Guardian Books, December 2011.