Tough Questions Rise From Ashes of England's Riots
Staff Writer, CNBC.com
Police appear to have brought under control the rioting and looting that gripped the UK on the fifth night since violence flared up in the North London borough of Tottenham on Saturday and spread like fire across the country, but politicians and society at large are struggling to grasp the economic and social root causes of the unrest.
Parliament was recalled from its summer recess for an emergency debate on the riots. Prime Minister David Cameron will address the house on Thursday morning.
More sirens than usual were wailing across the capital on Wednesday night, as the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) -- reinforced by an additional 10,000 police from across the UK to bring their total to a veritable army of 16,000 -- moved quickly to stamp out trouble before it began.
In Birmingham, the UK's second city, fears of violence between British-Asian and West Indian residents proved unfounded, after flaring in the wake of three men being killed defending their property on Tuesday night. Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the victims, rang out as a clear voice for calm as anger and speculation threatened to blow out of control among two communities that already clashed in 2005.
In Manchester, a heavy police presence and heavy rain dampened enthusiasm for a repeat of the looting that hit the town center on Tuesday.
More than 1,200 people have been arrested -- nearly 900 in London alone – and hundreds charged as courts opened during the night to accommodate the flow of cases. Politicians and senior police officers have lined upto ensure the public that those responsible will be brought to justice. Closed circuit television pictures of looters have been released onto the internet for the public to help in the process of identification.
Damage to businesses and property is estimated to have run into the hundreds of millions.
The drafting of additional police, the universal canceling of leave for officers, and more threatening crowd-control tactics including the use of armored vehicles, baton rounds and water cannon – armaments usually deployed only on the restive streets of Northern Ireland -- have dealt with the symptoms. However, the UK authorities face a far greater challenge in trying to understand the source of this month's unexpected, and shocking wellspring of nihilism.
Some people were quick to link the violence to UK austerity measures that have seen increases in university tuition fees and the end of the Education Maintenance Allowance, a scheme that paid 16-19-year olds to stay in full-time schooling. Cuts to youth programs in urban centers, which might have taken the young rioters off the streets during their summer vacation, have also been blamed.
London's human geography, almost unique in the developed world, is likely to have been a factor, commentators told CNBC.com.
In the capital, deprived communities live cheek-by-jowl with the rich, as a patchwork of traditional societies blend with newer immigrant communities, alongside the financial sector's wealthy and the holiday homes of multi-millionaires from the Middle East and the former Soviet bloc.
The most deprived area of London, Tower Hamlets, abuts its most affluent, the City. Canary Wharf, the second financial district in the capital, is set among the abandoned docklands of the old East End.
In the West, the shopping areas of Clapham Junction and Shepherds Bush are dotted with public housing and large, low-income communities that are underemployed and often feel under-represented within mainstream politics.
Violence, albeit on a smaller scale, is not unprecedented in the low-income areas of Tottenham and Brixton.
The questions over the police shooting of a local man, Mark Duggan, the week before, gave rioters in Tottenham a rhetorical link to old, still simmering grievances, but as many commentators have noted, the youths involved in most of the looting were from a generation removed from the quasi-political demonstrations of the 1980s. When it was all said and done, the vast majority of the UK rioters were not from Tottenham, either.
An antagonistic relationship with the police, however, remains the inheritance of that younger generation, which may have contributed to the anger directed at the Met, London's police force.
Most analysts agreed that while short-term factors -- including the police handling of the Duggan case and the cuts to government spending that saw youth centers shut in Tottenham – may have played some role, the deep-rooted inequality in the capital, dwindling opportunities for youth and a lack of social structures in poorer urban communities have long provided a springboard for events such as those experienced on the weekend.
"It's not that it's come out of nowhere," Faiza Shaheen, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation think tank told CNBC.com.
Youth unemployment is high, and has been trending ahead of adult unemployment for some time, she said. Added to this, "You have an increasingly consumerist society where standing is built on what you have and what you wear."
As Shaheen said, London society is "atomized," with communities sharing little besides postcodes, often on totally different levels of affluence. Their children do not mix; their livelihoods and concerns are alien to one another.
UK Riots Prompt Difficult Questions
There is a generational gap too. One in five 16-24 year olds across the country is out of work. That 20 percent rate compares to adult unemployment of around 9 percent, and the gap is widening.
"The gap between youth unemployment and adult employment has been growing over the last ten years," Jonathan Wright, a researcher at the Work Foundation think tank, told CNBC.com. "We know that young people are sensitive to the business cycle, and the recession has an effect on those people much more than adults, but what we saw from 2000, 2001, was a growing youth unemployment problem, even while the economy was growing."
Normally, youth unemployment is cyclical, Wright said. In the past decade in the UK, however, a more worrying trend is in play.
"We’ve actually seen a growing, structural unemployment. In 2001 there were 950,000 16-24 year olds who were outside of full-time education or employment. The latest figures that we've got are that there are 1,340,000… and it's been increasing steadily," he said. "People talk about a lost generation… this is where there is some worrying evidence, even while the economy was growing."
The national figures disguise a micro-level picture that reveals considerable imbalances within British society.
The London youth employment rate is around 22 percent – slightly above the national average. Within that aggregate figure, however, there are stark differences. In Hackney, where some of the most vicious riots took place on Monday night, centered around the Pembury Estate, the rate is 34 percent – more than one in three 16-24-year olds are out of work. In Kensington and Chelsea, an affluent borough of West London, the rate is 12 percent.
Liverpool, Salford and Nottingham also have rates higher than the national average, and the makeup of those communities suggests structural -- as opposed to cyclical -- youth unemployment, Wright said.
The intangible value of "community," and the stakes that local youth have in their own society, are also contributors to stability.
Hackney borders the even more deprived Tower Hamlets, which was relatively calm throughout the disorder.
Tower Hamlets, which has large ethnically Bangladeshi and Somali populations, exhibits far greater social cohesion and, with many businesses owned by those communities, individuals have more of a stake in their neighbourhood, analysts said.
Owen Jones, Hackney resident and author of Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class, which explored the building rhetoric in the media on the threat of an emerging "social underclass".
"I think there's something to be said for the argument that there is a section of youth in this country that do not feel they have a legitimate future, who have been raised in poverty, who in a sense are completely marginalized and isolated from the rest of society, and who feel that they have no power over their own lives," Jones told CNBC.com. "In a perverse way, this is a way of getting power."
Portraying the riots in their Monday night iteration in East and West London -- or in their copycat forms in Manchester and Birmingham -- as anything more than greed run rampant on the streets will be a massive task for politicians, but it will be important to explore the social and economic context from which the rioters emerged, and do so without appearing to legitimize their actions, Jones said.
"The worry I have at the moment is that because of people's understandable anger and fear, there isn't any attempt to understand the conditions that led to it," he said. "People think if you do, that makes you an apologist for mindless criminal thuggery."
"It's a difficult tightrope to walk, trying to understand it, but we have to, because if we don't, it will happen again, and it will be worse," Jones added.
Nick Wilkie, the chief executive of London Youth, an association of youth workers and associations across the capital, agreed, saying that policymakers have to be careful not to look for easy answers in ideology or rhetoric that vilifies youth in general.
"To say that this is about (governmental budget) cuts is crassly simplistic," he said.
Likewise, shifting the focus away from the law-and-order response with retributive media and politicians desperate for justice to be seen to be done, will do little to resolve the longer term issues, he said.
Wilkie said that it would be inappropriate for "future youth policy to be guided by riot control."
However, newspaper front pages on Thursday have called for a reversal of cuts to policing, rather than demanding more debate on social concerns.
"Chav" is among many epithets for urban youth, who are routinely called "feral". Cameron has been lambasted for once suggesting that people try to understand this part of the population and to "hug a hoodie," a reference to the hooded sweatshirts common among UK youth, and often transmuted by the media into the uniform of civil unrest.
Concurrently, tabloid revulsion for individuals on social benefits has reached an unprecedented pitch.
Rioting youth have "almost been dismissed as sub-humans," Jones said. "Sympathy toward people who are poor, who are unemployed, who are on benefits, is going to decline. You can already see that."
A petition on the government's e-petition website, which promises to debate any motion that passes 100,000 signatures, calling for those involved in rioting to lose their benefits, attracted immediate attention.
This could be a signal of the likely response amongst the population, and by inference, policymakers.
"What better way to push people into criminal activity," Jones said. "I don't think people act like this if they feel they have a future. Unless we engage with the reasons behind it, I can't see it not happening again, particularly as social and economic conditions get worse."