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ENGLAND’S SUMMER OF FLAMES: WHAT DOES IT PORTEND?     Print Email
By Garret Martin, Associate Editor at European Affairs

As Britain’s political parties open their season of party conferences, leaders are publicly garretmartinassessing the impact and implications of the days and nights of rage that set England afire this summer.  How worried should they be? And how should the outburst be interpreted across Europe and in the U.S.? Is this a year of coincidences in violence or is it another global upheaval – like 1848 or 1968? – that seeks to upend a world order that outlived its sell-by date?

Perhaps a bit of both – coincidence and synchronicity – with different significance in different places. Certainly it has been an extraordinary run: Spain, Italy, Greece and Israel: all have been rocked this year by youth-driven protest movements erupting with enraged pent-up frustration. The powder trail of protests has been sparked by growing public contempt for the political class in all these countries – an attitude reflected nowadays even in many Americans’ view of their elected representatives in Congress.

In America, street protests have been slower to materialize, even amid a long-running litany of vocal complaints and frustration about widening economic inequality and other complaints bundled as "Wall St. versus Main St." Now many American cities have new-style sit-ins under the common banner of "Occupy Wall Street." So far these peaceful, almost good-natured, made-in-U.S. protests contrast with the more violent protests that have erupted in Europe, according to a Washington-based BBC reporter.

Regime change came in the wake of full-scale revolts in some countries. But even in those that only rocked the system, the overall trend signalled something deeply dysfunctional in politics or perhaps the social dynamics that alienates many young people in a globalizing world.

This is the case for England, which joined the list of revolts in early August. For several days, mobs appeared in control of the streets, engaging in widespread looting and rioting and turning the country into a war zone. In Britain, the upheaval was put down in a few days with hardly any bloodshed. But the explosion lingers in policy-makers’ minds without any consensus about how to explain the riots that sometimes involved 10-year-olds who joined the looting.  The common element that seems to show up to some degree across cultures is a basic picture of youths feeling doomed to “dead-end” lives, while they see other layers of society prospering, sometimes with very dubious practices.

So what does this outburst in the streets of Britain --- normally thought of as a rather temperate, reformist and stable member of the EU --- portend for other democracies as they grapple with financial and economic gloom and doom?  What does that portend for the future obstacle course for democratic, capitalist societies as they try to pull themselves out of an economic morass by dint of austerity, to cut government spending, and to revitalize growth and job creation? And however it fits into a broader picture, what does this episode signify about the future of Britain’s own conservative-led coalition government with its plan for a “Big Society” that transcends the causes of economic decline and social frustration under the previous labor government?

Britain, of course, is singular in its historical immunity from the street violence that seems endemic in many nations on the Continent, and it has been part of the historic effort in the recent decades by EU nations to practice multicultural tolerance, especially by government agencies and authorities, including the police. Now the British police themselves have been accused of relaxing their street vigilance into passive vigilance, based on closed-circuit television supervision, an approach better suited to well-behaved nurseries than to mean streets. On top of that, the police have been besmirched in the corruption and other improprieties brought to light in the scandals that engulfed the News of the World and other Murdoch-owned tabloids.

Beyond police behavior, Britain’s week of rage warrants a wider and closer look for any lessons it holds about broader trends. After all, it is a leading practitioner of modern capitalism: London’s financial power, the City, ranks as the peer leader alongside Manhattan in “capitalizing’ on the globalized economy.

It will take months before the full consequences of the riots are apparent and their roots recognized. But the preliminary reading is that this was a very “British” event with British-centric consequences and solutions.

But, in a potentially more general point, it is noteworthy that the British government’s “austerity” measures – often cited as a cause for the street revolt -- have not yet gone into effect. Rioters were reacting to their dimming prospects, not to any actual increase in social hardship. The lesson -- that the threat of social pain makes people as combustible as the actual cutbacks -- may have wider implications as Greece has already shown in the streets and Spain and other countries in swings in their electoral politics.

The consequences of the riots, looting and vandalism in England seem to pose a significant threat to the governing coalition’s ambitious austerity plans, which Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government has put out as a vision to change the relationship between the state and citizens in a “Big Society” that invites individuals to take up responsibilities that have been discharged, expensively, by a “nanny state.” (For example, people will be asked to get their own sand and salt from government depots to cope with snow in the streets instead of waiting for these supplies to be delivered by government agencies.)

It is clear that the governing coalition of Conservatives and their junior partner the Liberal Democrats will face strong pressure to reconsider not only its planned course of deep spending cuts but also think again about  Cameron’s vision of a revitalized British society. The ‘‘summer of discontent’’ saw the prime minister’s leadership and credibility severely questioned.

First came the phone-hacking scandal, which affected ordinary citizens and celebrities, as well as Cameron’s reputation because of his close ties to top executives of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp . The arrest of Andy Coulson followed. He served as Cameron’s Director of Communications after being editor of Murdoch’s flagship tabloid,  News of the World from 2003 to 2007 at an early peak in the phone hacking activity. Then in July, Cameron “faced criticism from opposition politicians for remaining on holiday as the euro zone veered toward crisis, including headlines like ‘Is Anybody in Charge?’” His Tuscan summer vacation survived these questions, but was finally cut short by something else – a crisis that engulfed British streets with anarchic violence for days.

The social tinder was ignited on the hot night of August 4 in the racially-volatile northeastern London neighborhood of Tottenham when police shot and killed a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan. When the authorities were not forthcoming to Duggan’s family about the circumstances (was Duggan armed? did he fire at police?), local tensions flared, and a peaceful protest march toward the Tottenham police station rapidly turned violent. An overwhelmed police force was unable to stop looters from vandalizing and burning shops, and the violence and looting spawned a sprawl of “copycat” episodes that spread (partly thanks to “social media” on the web) to other parts of London and then other cities in England like wildfire jumping through treetops until the authorities flooded the zone with police. It took a week before mob rule abated, leaving a week later, five deaths and hundreds of millions of pounds in damage – plus a serious beating to the country’s self-image and international prestige.

The riots were not a classic ethnic revolt of the kind seen in Britain in the Brixton riots of the 1980s or in France in recent years (the rioters this time were a rainbow coalition of looters accompanied by a fringe of hooligans), the outburst did reflect racial tensions in Britain. As Time magazine noted, “in the past five years, the number of Black and South Asian people stopped and searched by the police in the country has nearly doubled to 310,000” -- a sign of the times when Britain has a growing alienated underclass and when police may be substituting racial profiling for more sophisticated and less abusive techniques of pre-empting criminal behavior.  But race was not the defining issue as the violence spilled beyond any specific neighborhood.

Equally unsatisfactory as an explanation is blaming the spending cuts. Although the government has touted its planned austerity for more than a year, many of the measures are only scheduled to come into effect in the next few years. Moreover, none of the protests seemed particularly politically minded.  As for those dismissing the riots as simple criminality, they conveniently dismiss “a cadre of young people in Britain who feel they have little or no stake in the country’s future or their own,” as the Economist charged.

Rarely mentioned in London commentaries but often brought up in foreign analyses is the survival of so many aspects of Britain’s class system. Theoretically consigned to history’s dustbin, it somehow seems to be consubstantial with British society and is a factor of alienation for underprivileged young people who see the elites practicing their own forms of licensed greed and misbehavior.,

When the riots subsided, police and the political class were prompt with their commentary – often shaped to project authority and make leaders seem back in control in coping with the aftermath of events that had taken them completely by surprise. Police arrested thousands of people as alleged participants, and Cameron wasted no time announcing that the coalition government would immediately “review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society…especially schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction [and] communities… and the cultural, legal, bureaucratic problems in our society too.” Some members of the coalition government floated ideas of cutting benefits for rioters and expelling them from their homes in low-rent housing subsidized by local governments.

As of now, four key political battlegrounds have emerged. First, what needs to be done about a national police system, notably the Metropolitan Police (which includes Scotland Yard and handles Greater London). Tarnished by revelations last summer about its cronyism with News Corp. executives, British police now face strong criticism for their (mis)handling of civil disturbances. Critics have singled out the Metropolitan police for an overly passive approach to policing the capital’s streets symbolized by excessive reliance on closed-circuit television. With crime pushed to forefront of British voters’ concern, the government  -- goaded by London Mayor Boris Johnson, a conservative will likely face growing pressure to cancel planned cuts to police budgets (16% over four years).

A second dispute might seemingly erupt about the larger program of spending cuts planned by the Cameron government. For 2010, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, citing a record deficit on top of Britain’s, has announced budget reductions of 160 billion pounds -- 11.4% of GDP.  An additional cut of 83 billion pounds is in the works for the following four years. But now one has to wonder whether the government will maintain its austerity platform:  “The temptation to buy off trouble --- more money on police spending, youth employment programs will be high,” as The Economist noted. And that temptation will become more pronounced when, Member of Parliament Diane Abbott of the Labour Party noted that such cuts will affect sensitive communities and are “not going to make things any better.”

Can the coalition partners agree on a wider strategy to deal with the aftermath of the riots? After the elections in 2010, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, managed to cement an alliance, despite deep philosophical differences, because they agreed on the necessity for cuts and because they viewed the state as overbearing and over-centralized. Yet, as well argued by Jonathan Hopkin in Foreign Affairs, Cameron’s current response to the civil disturbances --- a tough law and order approach that criminalizes the rioters and attacks the welfare system --- could very well exacerbate relations with the Liberal Democrats. Some members of the party have decried the plans to cut benefits for rioters or expel them from council housing as “headline grabbing,” not policy making.

The fourth, and most significant, battle line involves the government and the opposition’s attempts to shape the debates about the meaning of the riots and how to respond. On this, Cameron and Labor opposition leader Ed Miliband have staked out conflicting views. The Conservative leader’s line focused on morality, complaining of the reluctance “for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong” and singling out gangs as a rising threat to Britain’s social peace. He also accuses previous governments of failing to solve social issues and instead sweeping them under the rug with an overly generous welfare system.

In contrast, Milibrand has chosen to emphasize the importance of poverty and related socio-economic factors, charging that the bankers, politicians and journalists have set an example of greed that has fanned the flames of a larger social conflict. He has called for a “new bargain” for British society. But politically neither he nor the ruling coalition – nor the voters – seem to want early new elections at a time when the country is grappling with its severe economic crisis.

Imposing his moral reading on the riots will be particularly crucial for Cameron, who wants to both deflect any claim that his austerity plan had a role to play in the outbreak of violence and to salvage his ambitious reform plan. The “Big Society” amounted essentially to a buzzword for a series of proposals aiming to take power away from the politicians and the bureaucracy and give it to the people, encouraging them to volunteer more to improve their communities.

Yet, as Hopkin detailed it, the riots exposed major flaws of Cameron’s ambitions. Not only was it naïve to expect civil society to make up for a shortfall in government provisions, but “the ease with which Britain's social order could break down suggested that the problems facing poor urban neighborhoods were of an entirely different order than the Conservative leadership had believed”. So for Cameron the challenge is to shift focus to the idea of fixing the “broken society” in a way that enables him to maintain some continuity with the “Big Society”.  This will require his government to adapt to the post-riot circumstances while articulating a new moral mission for governance.

That leap – as General de Gaulle famously said about change in his own country – is “a vast program.”

Garret Martin is Associate Editor at European Affairs