Of all the persuasive things I read in July perhaps the one that took up most solid residence among my mental furnishings was a 'tweet' by the excellent PatrickOsgood, Assistant Editor at Oil & Gas Middle East magazine: “We're screwed, right? By ‘we’ I mean flabby westerners in advanced economies...”
To wit: earlier this month I spent a week’s family holiday abroad, a proportion of which was spent watching BBCNews24, aghast, and debating the usefulness of plastic bullets in situations of violent mass public disorder... A friend with whose family we were sharing the holiday watched these bulletins alongside me with a special set of concerns – he being a producer for the BBC 10 O’Clock News, thus a keen-eyed judge of how well ‘the firm’ was doing in its coverage.
For me there was the special unease of goggling from afar at conflagration and mayhem in parts of North London (N17 and N22) where I used to live – contentedly in the main, among good people, if always feeling fairly rueful about the patches of public deprivation/squalor, and very often nervy/annoyed about the unnecessary levels of edginess on the street courtesy of young males whose chief ambition in life seemed to be making themselves look quite nasty. Still, as an impotent riot-watcher I had the consolation that my current manor (N8) was being spared too much shattering of shop windows. Instead it was Tottenham and Wood Green where the workless class of England smashed and grabbed armfuls of branded sportswear made in China and Vietnam.
I must admit, one of my most insistent feelings in watching the reportage and mulling over it was: fings ain’t what they used to be. To be precise, what I was seeing didn’t strike me as having the full-force ramifications of the Thatcher-era riots of 1981 that I remember, in Brixton, Southall, Toxteth, Moss Side et cetera. In 2011 I simply couldn’t see the point of summoning a Lord Scarman to pick over this wreckage: it just wasn’t an impressive sort of uprising. And by the time one heard the first reports of a millionaire’s daughter in court for nicking – it felt like a 'disenfranchised class'-type analysis wasn’t going to stay on its feet for long.
Arriving home again on Wednesday August 10 I found the heat had abated: the cab driver at Stansted presented me with the Sun, its front cover a mosaic of CCTV-busted rioters, the inner pages given over to a chorus of popular revulsion. Sixteen thousand additional police officers appeared to have worked the trick and laid down the law. (I understand David Cameron, unlike his Home Secretary, had been all for wheeling in the army. Good job cooler heads prevailed - I admit I was one who briefly got into a tizzy of what sort of force might be needed to dampen the rioters' ardour.)
That Wednesday night I watched the father of Haroon Jahan on the news, and burst into tears, as I suspect did others. His remarkable dignity and eloquence seemed to sum up a noticeably prevalent message: for shame. Meanwhile online I found (via Norman Geras) that Kenan Malik had said quite quickly most of what I’d been thinking. (I also endorse pretty much all of what’s written here by Will Davies at his Potlatch blog.)
In a mood of dubious nostalgia I did allow myself a glance back the other day at Alexander Cockburn’s long essay ‘The Underclass’, published by the Village Voice in January 1982, subsequently collected in Cockburn’s Corruptions of Empire (Verso), and dominated by an interview with Darcus Howe, who was then billed as ‘editor of Race Today.’ Interestingly Howe spoke witheringly of a Britain ‘saturated with the concept of welfare’, a placebo that black Britain had come to see as ‘no cure for the cancer’ – the cancer being the threat of ‘permanent unemployment.’ Cockburn ended pointedly with this interpretation of events in the Manchester vicinity by Howe: ‘Whites from Withenshawe (sic), blacks from Moss Side, no prearranged plan. They gather. There is a shout, “On to Moss Side police station.’ That gives you some indication. You must have a convergence of interests in order for that to happen...’ The question, of course, is what those interests can be defined as, and what they amount to. But in any case on the occasion of the Riots of August 2011 I’ve yet to hear or read a resolute class analysis akin to Howe’s of 1981 (or rather, yet to hear or read one that wasn’t outstandingly foolish.)
Finally, what to make of Tony Blair’s contribution to the post-mortem (‘Blaming a moral decline for the riots makes good headlines but bad policy’)? Very well made, I’d say, and firmly on the side of ‘decent law-abiding’ people who don’t want their homes and livelihoods wrecked by reprehensible gang-bangers. But this reflective passage is, for me, ‘the money’:
“I would say that today's generation is a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hard-working than mine was. The true face of Britain is not the tiny minority that looted, but the large majority that came out afterwards to help clean up. I do think there are major issues underlying the anxieties reflected in disturbances and protests in many nations. One is the growing disparity of incomes not only between poor and rich but between those at the top and the aspiring middle class. Another is the paradigm shift in economic and political influence away from the west...”
Ah yes, the fading of the West, which is where (with Patrick Osgood) we came in.
Oh, and finally (2): Blair is quite right to express irritation at sections of the media given to “a high- faluting wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally.” In particular one of the most irritating things about the (generally Blair-hating) tenor of left-liberal England is where it joins hands with the most reactionary right in heeding the sermons of Peter Oborne, the churchy Sherborne Tory who is very good at sounding morally vexed by everybody living outside his parish. Oborne lacks even that one highly redeeming feature of Toryism: namely its departure from the Spartan Left in seeing Man not as some perfectable socio-political unit in a grand Utopian project but, rather, as a fallen creature of whom we must simply try to make the best that we can. Still, Socialist Worker and Daily Mail meet over drinks in their shared capacity to get disgusted by the slightest traits of their fellow men and women, and that is one party from which I’ll always run a mile.