The British government, caught off guard and on holdiay, has announced it will meet violent mobs head on with plastic bullets, water cannons and other policing methods required to bring the next Olympic city under control...but for how long? 

Britain has some very deep soul-searching ahead of it as the last few violent nights have shown there is a deeply angry parallel society that has probably developed over the last two generations, but now has tasted power.

Calling the mob thuggery ‘mindless’ is however incorrect.

There is nothing mindless about it, as many interviews with the hoodies have clearly displayed. They have set their ‘mind’ on proving how angry they are and how little they care about those largely invisible conventions that keep society ticking along usually quite peacefully.

They essentially belong to a thoroughly disaffected part of David Cameron’s Big Society. In short they do not fit in with the picture London wants to present to the world in exactly a year when it rolls out the 2012 Olympics.

Yet now they have shown they cannot be swept under the public relations carpet and trusted to plod on out of sight with their miserable, uneducated, poorly housed lives.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a bleeding heart plea for a little gentle slap over the wrist with the proverbial  wet bus ticket. There is no excuse for the rampage of looting, burning lawlessness. Struggling on the cultural, social or economic fringes of society has never been carte blanche to return to the Hobbessian nasty, brutish and short existence when it suits.

However acting like that sure gets attention.

A number of the young thugs – for that is what those who indulge in thuggery are – have gleefully told journalists that there was never any attention paid to their miserable lives on the vast estates which are riddled with gangs and violence, but the ‘suits’ are sure taking notice now.

And that is true. Oh the power of dragging the likes of Cameron back from his Tuscany Villa holiday, or London’s Mayor Boris Johnson who still doesn’t seem to understand why he had to leave his Canadian hols.

Add to that the power of completely outwitting the large, powerful and well armed British police – variously referred to as the Met and by the gangs as the Feds. The British public – many of whom have seen their homes, cars and businesses go up in smoke and their lives put in danger – are baying for blood from the authorities for taking so long to realise how serious this all was/is.

Why did the police take hours to don their riot gear? Why did they essentially stand by and allow the looting? And of course why did the leaders take so long to vacate their summer sun loungers?

This of course comes only a couple of weeks after the police have been thoroughly disgraced by the involvement of some officers in the News of the World scandal, and the disclosure that the Bobbies have run up massive credit card bills and are reluctant to do much about disclosing who should be held to account. But that’s brewing in the background.

Now the police have been given the Cameron imprimatur to fight fire with fire. In this case that means plastic bullets and possibly water cannons to disperse looters.

The violence has spread across many British communities and cities and there’s a clear panic on to contain it.

However as the very astute founder of the charities The Place to Be and Kids Company, Camila Batmanghelidjh has written, those who work at the street level – i.e. the real world – are not surprised by this rioting.

Her key point is that it is no use asking how these young people can attack their own community, because they are alienated from said community. They have no connection so don’t see it as ‘theirs’. They have become disengaged.

 And it is not strange for these kids – and they are mostly just kids – to measure their status by what they have. After all the rest of the world does just that and everyone is bombarded by it. Otherwise why would there be a global debt meltdown as individuals and societies live beyond their means on stuff they can’t afford?   

As I was standing in London’s Heathrow terminal watching Cameron’s press conference announcing he’s giving the police every single possible thing they want if only the bring this under control, another ‘watcher’ asked me what I thought was behind all of this.

Having no idea who my fellow traveller was I offered that I didn't think this happened suddenly but had been brewing for years. Hardly a deep, sociological analysis, but I wanted to listen to Cameron and this was an interruption.

Turns out he was a magistrate who presides over cases that come directly from the vast housing estates, many of which have the notoriety of operating as truly antisocial communities, living by their own rules usually set by the reigning resident gang.  

His main observation was the anger displayed by these youths. He told me of dealing with a case where one guy broke another’s neck in a dispute over a cigarette. One measly fag.

So we had a brief conversation about the importance of having the right shoes, the right phone, and an array of other consumer goods that apply the ‘big man’ stamp. And yes, there’s complete irony in the brief conversation being held in the sparkly Terminal 5 with its marbled floors and solicitous designer stores.

In the meantime all police leave has been cancelled and streets around London, Birmingham and other communities across Britain are going to be deluged by riot-clad forces.

Britain used to pride itself on policing by consent. Now that’s in the dustbin and the bullets are out.

Cameron got it right when he said this violence has shown the worst of Britain. He was equally correct when he said it showed the response from the public to get out and clean up their streets in an effort to reclaim them has shown the best of Britain.

His understatement of the year however, delivered as if it was a new discovery for him was “it is all too clear we have a problem with gangs in our country”. Really!

 While young people running amok are not always attributable to gangs, what is gripping London and its environs is more than that. Particularly if it reinforces reports that the older youths are sending the younger ones into the smashed stores to loot and report back to base – aka a car waiting around the corner – and the stolen goods are immediately laundered.

 Gangs, Mr Cameron, like political parties don’t form overnight. They take years of often painful process to gain traction.  The establishment has been caught short but it can’t plead surprise. The warning signs have been around and those who work in the field have been quick to remind the likes of Cameron that they were ready to make the case to avoid just this but no one with power cared to take notice. It is not as if it hasn't happened before.

Comments (1)

by Bruce Carruthers on August 14, 2011
Bruce Carruthers

The declaration of an end to the limited assertion of government force on the British people is a profound change to its tradition that has its roots in the Civil War of the 17thC. The alternative path taken of late to a surveillance society had already signalled that its society was a divided one with major problems. The relative understated nature of this course had allowed a pretence that the civil society was still intact and that a tolerant multi-cultural Britain of both the Commonwealth and Europe was emerging. However the unwillingness to actively assert power over the people was not just in respecting a tradition of government by consent of the people but also a fear that it would be counter-productive.

Now there seems little choice but to have the public aware that the will and the means to contain riots will be established, particularly with the Games next year. That does mean allowing police to declare a curfew to secure the safety of those putting out fires or when shops are looted and to enforce this curfew via water-cannon, plastic bullets and tear gas. Yet how they build a concept of society in Britain, when multi-culturalism is in retreat in Europe and the economic capacity of government is declining, will have little to do with the enhanced capacity of the state to manage the crowd in the street.

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