We need to ask a simple question about the riots: why?

Omar Salem

Question MarkBy Omar Salem

It must feel awful to be a victim of this week’s riots. Imagine having your home burnt out or your business gutted. It is lucky that no one has been killed, and let’s hope that continues to be the case. We do not know how much longer these problems will last. Yet it is clear that the human and social cost of the riots will be greater than any economic figure that can be put on it.

No doubt these events will lead to extensive soul searching and discussion across British society. However, even at this early stage there are a few things that are obvious to any right-minded person.

First of all, those responsible for the violence and criminal damage visited upon Tottenham and beyond must be brought to justice. Whether or not they had legitimate grievances there is no excuse to acting with the reckless abandon that has been demonstrated over the past few days. We should all support the police in their efforts to make sure those responsible face the full force of the law.

Secondly, there must be a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the killing of Mark Duggan. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) has already started said investigation. We must remember that the Tottenham riots started with a peaceful protest, attempting to raise legitimate concerns about Duggan’s death.

Thirdly, the police must learn the lessons of these riots. The police had a difficult task in responding to the riots but it seems clear there are improvements to be made for the future. There has been criticism that the police have been slow to respond and snuff out trouble before it escalates.

But it is also the less obvious that we also need to turn our attention to. We need to ask, and answer, the simple question: why? It leads on to many more. What has caused the mayhem we have seen on our streets? Are they an isolated response to an individual event or a symptom of a deeper malaise? Research institutions institutions and think tanks should today be dispatching teams of researchers to answer exactly these question. Unfortunately, few will have the resources or imagination to do so.

We can speculate on some of the causal factors of the disturbances. It is an unhappy fact that there have been warnings of the risk of social unrest ever since the financial crisis of 2008. This was not, as former Tory parliamentary candidate Shaun Bailey claimed, a case of ‘talking up’ riots, but an earnest warning of the outcome if the financial crisis was allowed to turn into an economic and social crisis. Sadly, that is exactly what has come to pass. Since the financial crisis, London has already witnessed the violence and disorder of the student protests of November 2010. Now, hot on their heels, has come further mayhem and agitation in the capital.

There is another clue in the locations of the disorder: Tottenham, Peckham, Croydon, Hackney and Enfield. We are not seeing people on the streets of Mayfair, Chelsea or Kensington. City bankers and lawyers are not the demographic involved in the trouble. People in some of our most deprived communities have been hit by a double whammy: unemployment resulting from the economic situation and the Coalition’s programme of cuts. As a result of the cuts Haringey was forced to close eight of its 13 youth clubs. Without positive activities to engage them, there is always the risk that young people will be drawn into less salubrious doings.

Britain used to pride itself on a sense that everybody ‘played by the rules’. Over the last few years we have seen that the elite of this country – bankers, politicians and the media – haven’t been following that dictum. Just as Britain has an elite, there is now an underclass which is disenfranchised, socially excluded and angry. Those looting our capital might ask why they should play by the rules when no one else seems to be doing so.

The Tottenham MP David Lammy has been careful to distinguish between today’s incidents and those of the Broadwater Farm riots a quarter of a decade ago. It is true that relations between the police and black community have improved immeasurably since those days. But the question of to what extent race played a part in the riots must be asked. Britain continues to be marred by extreme racial inequalities and there is still a long way to go before the Metropolitan Police are fully representative of the diversity of modern London.

Beyond the economic, social and political factors that may underlay what we are seeing there is also the familial. Where are the parents of the young people who are running amok? Parenting is doubtless one of the hardest jobs in the world, and we need to have a serious think about how we can better support parents if we wish to avoid a repeat of the recent troubles.

It would be a grave mistake for the government to brush off the question of why London is aflame, even if it raises uncomfortable questions of their policies. It will be attractive to the Conservatives to posture on law and order, but not ask the deeper questions. In the face of social unrest Marie Antoinette allegedly said ‘let them eat cake’. We need a better answer than that.

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