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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

History and Rioting (The Inevitable 'Riots' Blog Post): Part 2

Living in Interesting Times
"May you live in interesting times" runs the Chinese curse (allegedly). Those of us in the UK (and in many other countries to an even greater extent) are getting to know exactly what that means at the moment. Sometimes I wonder whether people can ever really experience the making of history (a complex theoretical issue which I won't go into) but up until about a fortnight ago I was wondering whether, if things in the UK went on as they were, whether we might be experiencing the making of an historical conundrum, the sort of thing that will give rise to endless exam questions in future decades and centuries, all boiling down essentially to one question: 'how the hell did that happen?'  I was taken back to this pondering in the letter by David Parker to the Guardian, linked to in Part 1 of these thoughts. 

My thinking went along these sorts of lines.  Imagine that we were historians working at some point in the future and read this narrative:  Once upon a time, there was a huge economic crisis caused by the irresponsible actions of the super-wealthy elite.  A government attempted to right the situation and in fact it was handling the situation reasonably effectively.  However, it had done other ill-advised things, such as getting involved in expensive and unpopular wars, and handled many other issues very badly and it, and especially its leader, were widely disliked.  So people believed that its economic record was very bad and it was overthrown and replaced by another ministry led by a shiny-faced young aristocrat who played well on his dour old opponent's failure to get within waving distance of charisma.  This new government, however, was based upon a very slender and tenuous control of the political core of the country.  Yet, to the surprise of many of those who had backed it, once in power it launched a series of repressive measures, taking rights and resources away from the people, especially the poor - reducing their ability to find work, to acquire education, to subsist in times of necessity, and many other things besides.  They were supported in this by other ministers who had hitherto based their status on advocating quite the opposite point of view.  And so far from doing anything to restrain the super-wealthy aristocracy, they even mooted the cutting of their taxes.  In the middle of all this, they decided to hold a marriage for a prince and princess at huge cost to the tax-payers.

If the next part of the narrative went 'and so it was that the people rose in revolution and herded the unpopular aristocracy and their government off to the guillotine', no one, I think, would be very surprised - whatever you might think of the rights and wrongs of political violence (to which, as you know, I am opposed).  Up until very recently the conundrum seemed to me to be why, in early twenty-first-century Britain, nothing happened at all.  People swallowed the myth of the deficit, and of the Labour Party's economic mishandling of some of the elements that produced the crisis (sure it made mistakes, but ones that most other governments were making at the same time; mistakes that only emerged with hindsight, and as we now know, re. Coulson, the NotW, etc., saying that you'd have done things differently with hindsight forgives all).  Peaceful protests were slapped down with heavy-handed policing.  Very minor disturbances (occupying Selfridges or wherever) were reported as terrible anarchist outrages, and people actually believed this.  A government with no popular mandate carried out extreme ideologically-driven slash and burn policies, some at least of which were not even in their manifesto, supported by a minority party that had gone to the electorate espousing entirely antithetical ideas.  And - so it seemed - got away with it, as people swallowed their nonsensical stories. The people seemed to have been lulled into a kind of political coma.  Why had people sat idly by as the last traces of a welfare state, created on a wave of popular idealism after a huge costly war, were dismantled around them? This seemed to be the making of a knotty historical problem - a really counter-intuitive development that bucked any attempt a historian might have made to predict what happened next.  Why, in comparative terms, did this happen in twenty-first-century democratic Britain, with an educated electorate and mass-communication, when similar actions had toppled governments and, indeed, heads in earlier autocratic regimes with largely illiterate populaces living in small-scale communities?  Interesting indeed.

Then the riots happened.  And of course it is too simple to say that it is all down to The Cuts, just as it is too simple to lump together all the actions in all the different towns and either say that they were all political or that they were all criminal.  But there is no getting away from the fact that there were no riots like this under thirteen years of Labour government (whatever the latter may not have done actively to ameliorate the situation it inherited) and indeed none since the last Conservative administration, particularly the last one to launch cuts and attacks on the public sphere like this.  To say 'ah, but it was just that all these problems were stoked up by labour and just happened to break out now' won't cut it.

There are issues of course that need to be teased apart, of which the following are just a few:
  • The initial causes of the violence in north London
  • Subsequent violence, looting and so on
  • The role of gangs in the background to the riots and in the activities afterwards
  • The specifics of the different communities in the towns involved
Now, even this very short list ought to make it clear that no catch-all explanation is going to work. It also brings out one feature of discussions in the past week that has really concerned me and that is the sheer poverty of vocabulary in British political discourse. We are given two choices: either we condemn, or we condone the violence. These events brought out, as such things are wont to, the best and worst in human beings. In the best, we saw the father of one of the boys pointlessly killed trying to defend their property speak with great compassion and humanity; in the worst we saw an already assaulted East Asian visiting student helped up, only to be cynically robbed of his possessions. Extreme events have a tendency to produce the best and the worst. Great heroism took place during the London Blitz; so did considerably less heroic actions. When I wrote a book about warfare I commented that battles, concentrations of extreme emotions, produce great acts of self-scrifice and heroism, and of cowardice and cruelty.

Yet, the BBC (at its very worst here) and other media appear to have gone down the same route as it did with the - as everyone can now surely see - massively-exaggerated cases of window-breaking etc during the anti-Cuts protests: 'But surely you, X, must condemn this violence?' 'Well, I think it's a complex issue that cannot be judged so simply...'  'Aha, so you condone this sort of violence!'  This simple binary choice won't suffice.  People did do many things that must very obviously be condemned; they did many other things that are - I would say - deeply regrettable, not least because they hurt their own community more than anyone else's, and they did things (like stealing ice-cream cones) that frankly I don't give a monkey's cuss about, one way or the other.  I would not have a problem with the trashing or looting of multi-national companies' property were it not  for the fact that the costs of such actions won't be borne by the directors and principal shareholders but by the shop-staff and other workers at the lowest level.  The problem with the vocabulary of condemnation, when applied in blanket form as - naturally - the government wants it applied, is that it reduces the issue to the simple blaming of individuals without further analysis.

One doesn't have to look far for analogies.  Take the Metropolitan Police.  What events of the past few years have shown is that while the Met is very effective at blowing the heads off unarmed Brazilian electricians and at valiantly herding largely unthreatening middle-class school-children and young adults into cul-de-sacs and hemming them in there for hours (provided enough warning is given for them to get sufficiently tooled up and mob-handed), when a spontaneous outburst of serious public disturbance occurs it is - shall we say? - considerably less effective in 'defending the public'.  Does this mean I have no sympathy for the bobbies who find themselves in the front line faced by angry mobs, in the course of doing a job that is difficult and in its basic, founding principles entirely commendable?  Of course it doesn't.  But nor does it mean that I can condone white-washing or - and this is the important bit - dumping all the blame for the killing of Ian Tomlinson just onto the individual officer that carried out the actual actions that ended up killing him (any more than I 'condone' his action).  The problem goes, and the analysis has to go, further than that.  You do see, I hope, the analogy.  It's not direct or equivalent but it is about the similar problems that occur when you are simply given the choice between blanket condemnation or condoning of all the actions of individuals or even organisations, when it might be structures and context that need attention.  Historians are supposed to be able to look at the complex mix of individuals, motives, structures and contexts in the analysis of events.  Not that this means - as I have suggested before - that they should not pass moral judgement (or, perhaps better, at least present their account in such a way as to reveal a moral compass as well as the complexities).  In some ways this is an interesting contemporary case-study.

In some superficial ways our hitherto evidently aberrant historical narrative has returned to form.  We have had our 'peasants revolt' and the aftermath has been entirely in the usual mold.  Judges across the land have competed, so it seems, for the 'Judge Jeffreys Memorial Award' for absurdly harsh sentencing.  Plenty have compared the sentences dished out to rioters with the (lack of) sentences handed down to fraudulent, corrupt MPs, and the size of the sums of money illegally obtained in both cases.  The hypocrisy has been astonishing.  For trying to start a riot (on Facebook) - a riot that didn't happen - two lads get 4 years in jail.  Cameron divested himself of the cliche about justice needing to be seen to be done, while not heeding the first part of the phrase - that justice needs to be done.  This is not justice.   My new favourite historian can be seen as inciting murderous vigilante violence on his Torygraph blog, and nothing happens at all.  Inciting riotous violence - bad: inciting murderous repressive violence - good.  I suspect (indeed I hope) that the way the narrative does seem to have jolted back to some sort of historically 'normal' course (after all even Nick Clegg, in a show of political clairvoyance and perception that he has subsequently lost, it seems, predicted the riots himself, well over a year ago) suggests that this 'story' has some way to run yet.

I have wanted to break these thoughts up into more manageable chunks.  In the next I want to explore some of the issues involved in this violence from a historical perspective.