Thursday, 11 August 2011

Why no White Riot?

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don't mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

So sang The Clash in their iconic punk anthem 'White Riot', well over 30 years ago. Although these lyrics may prima facie suggest racist connotations, in fact these political subversives were lamenting the reluctance of indigenous Londoners to follow the example of thier black brethren in rising up against authority. It seems that white band members Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon had earlier been involved in a riot during the Notting Hill carnival, when a mixed group of both blacks and whites came to the defense of an arrested pickpocket.

Simonon and group guitarist Mick Jones were both brought up in Brixton, south London, which was the scene of England's then worst riots in modern times in 1981, a handful of years after the Clash exploded onto the music scene in the late 1970s.

A few years later I also lived in the Brixton area for around a year, regularly walking down the Railton Road 'frontline' from the tube station towards where I stayed nearer to Herne Hill rail station, albeit that I was an aspiring young professional in the City of London rather than any sort of authentic Brixton resident or a member of London's punk rock counter-culture. (Anyway, by that time the London punk rock revolution had largely fizzled out to morph into the Seattle-based grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.)

Of course, the Clash's perspective on the race-based explanation for rioting in London has largely been confirmed on a more intellectual basis in the wake of events of the last few days. Hence Scottish commentators like Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review, Professor Tom Devine on Newsnicht, Torcuil Crichton on his blog, Michael Kelly and sociologist Stuart Waiton in the Scotsman have all, to a greater or lesser extent, employed Scotland's lack of a significant Afro-Caribbean rooted population as rationalising the lack of copycat riots and looting in Scotland. (Stuart Crawford in the Caledonian Mercury somehow manages to sidestep this completely, but perhaps his attempt to rationalise the difference by reverting to humour masks a degree of politically correct sensitivity on the subject.)

But if this explains the Scottish aspect, what about the racial dimension to the riots in London and elsewhere south of the border?

Between the Brixton riots in 1981 and my briefish residence there I studied a criminology module while a student, and one aspect of this was a left-wing sociological explanation of this kind of disorder, and the course entailed reading the Scarman Report on the riots. Broadly speaking I was sympathetic to this way of thinking and his lordship's liberal approach to the subject.

And although the details remain hazy, racism and consequent economic marginalisation of black people were largely considered to have fostered the conditions for the violent uprising, explanations which of course require little in the way of elucidation in view of this week's ensuing debate, which indeed largely echoes the kind of thing that's never been far away from the headlines during the generation since the events of 1981 in south London.

Another key argument from my academic studies of what happened was the comparison of the concepts of 'policing by consent' with 'policing by coercion', and again this hardly requires much in the way of exposition, at the superficial level at least.

However, anyone regularly reading this blog will perhaps have surmised by now that my take on such matters is slightly different these days - in fact, arguably diametrically opposed - and I'm more sympathetic to the likes of David Cameron's Downing Street statement yesterday on the week's events, or perhaps this from the Telegraph's Philip Johnston:
Yet the riots we are seeing now are fundamentally different from those that have gone before. They might, ostensibly, have been triggered by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a notorious gangster, in north London; but they are fuelled by pure greed, by a belief that something can be had for nothing. The usual brakes on such behaviour – either an appreciation that it is wrong, or by the prospect that the culprit will be caught and punished – are largely absent.

For this, we have to thank four decades of politically correct policing, and a gradual breakdown of the informal network of authority figures that once provided an additional element of control over the bad behaviour of young people. Adults are now reluctant, or too scared, to step in and stop things getting out of hand, or to impose a wider moral code – and in any case, they are no longer listened to. Deference to age and authority has been eroded by years of genuflection to the twin gods of multiculturalism and community cohesion.

The police, bludgeoned by criticism for the way they handled the Brixton riots 30 years ago and the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1994, have become more like social workers than upholders of law and order. And the places that have really suffered as a result are the most deprived: they have to bear the brunt of the criminality and the fear, squalor and alienation that accompanies it.
And here, in a nutshell, is my perspective on events. Britain encouraged large scale immigration in the post war period to do the 'rubbish' jobs that the indigenous population didn't want to do. Hence immigrants settled here at the bottom of the pile, and have to a large extent stayed there ever since. More recently, political progressives encouraged an even larger wave of immigration, further exacerbating inequalities and further economically marginalising those at the bottom of society, with racism in the labour market helping things along. Thus more crime in immigrant communities, with an element of racist policing causing further alienation.

And another facet of progressive thinking elevated rights over responsibilities, extended the boundaries of permissible human behaviour, and excused criminality on the politically correct basis that a person was towards the bottom of the ladder as regards social status, particularly in relation to matters like poverty, race and culture.

In turn this increases criminality and lawlessness, making those living in such an environment virtually unschoolable and in turn unemployable in the mainstream labour market, hence turning instead to gang culture and making a living via theft and drug dealing.

Of course, to an extent society as a whole can function normally despite all this - and, perhaps instructively, the problems don't normally impinge onto the chattering classes and middle England/Scotland any more than marginally - but occasionally things 'kick off big-style', and rather than standing idly by the authorities are forced to act, but by this time radical intervention is required.

But the left still blame the economic for the criminal, but ultimately this merely maintains the vicious circle: if joblessness and poverty are used to excuse wrongdoing then this merely perpetuates the wrongdoing, in turn cementing the joblessness and poverty.

It's quite easy to find examples detracting from the slightly romanticised notion of popular uprising born of economic disaffection, but two rioting and looting females speaking on Tuesday's Newsnight perhaps summed things up nicely: "It's good fun...course it is...showing the police we can do what we want...yeah, that's what it's all about...and now we have."

And from a personal perspective my change of mind has hardly amounted to an epiphany or Damascene-style conversion, instead more a long and gradual process taking place over at least half a generation, but ultimately resulting in a wholly different perspective.

And perhaps it's personal experience of facets of society ruled by the more low level violence, drunkenness, vandalism and anti-social behaviour generally that's been instrumental in my turnaround in attitude. Most obviously, the part of Dundee where I reside is largely ignored by the authorities until things get out of hand, in which case police officers certainly arrive mob-handed, and to that extent a more coercive approach is required. Thus in many ways a microcosm of what's been evident on our TV screens over the past few days.

To a degree, then, the 'policing by consent' v 'policing by coercion' debate mentioned above seems pretty meaningless. What does policing by consent actually mean, for example, beyond a convenient soundbite? In the context of Brixton, for example, perhaps it has meant in effect tolerating a certain level of criminality which is dressed up in terms of things like community policing, social cohesion and multiculturalism.

But of course what may help gain the consent of some merely alienates others who suffer from the consequent criminality, culminating in this week's events, and necessitating a more coercive state response.

Similarly, in today's Scotsman Michael Kelly says:
The philosophy of policing by consent is not a concept that people robbed of their business want to hear. But it is the right approach. It is right, too, that the police, rather than being a distant, feared body of authoritarian hardmen are integrated in the communities in which they serve, are accessible, do concern themselves with the deeper causes of criminality rather than simply try to quell it at its flashpoints.

A Britain whose streets are controlled by water cannon, where even the most obnoxious, snivelling little thief is wounded and possibly killed by a rubber bullet, where the army puts down even the most aggressive of the anti-social elements who steal the plasma TVs and iPhones that the rest of us take for granted is not a Britain in which I want to live. The level of theft in Saudi Arabia is low, it is said, because they cut off the hands of thieves.

Civilised societies accept higher levels of crime as the price of the just and proportionate treatment of offenders. We live in a civilised society here. Policy should be directed at keeping it that way.
But surely the level of force used, while not gratuitously disproportionate, should simply be that necessary to restore order. Imagine if police had been unable to stop the looting, arson and violence this week and the numbers involved in the disorder had escalated? What would have happened then? Luckily it seems that order has been largely restored without resorting to water cannons and baton rounds, but what if the more conventional approach hadn't worked? Of course, it's all very well to talk of a "more civilised society here", but ultimately the level of force required to put down disorder depends on the level of disorder in evidence. Imagine if the middle class Michael Kelly's life and property had been threatened by arsonists and looters; what would policing by consent mean then?

By the same token, policing by consent very often seems to mean just letting people get on with a certain level of wrongdoing, rather than police concerning themselves with the "deeper causes of criminality" which inevitably means police "simply trying to quell it at its flashpoints", rather than the former obviating the need for the latter as Mr Kelly claims.

Thus despite the reforms brought about by the Scarman and MacPherson reports, the comments from the two females quoted from Newsnight arguably demonstrate the failure of the hands-off approach to policing, with criminals merely exploiting the situation rather than being properly "understood".

Likewise, the community warden scheme introduced in many of Scotland's more euphemistically described 'troubled' 'communities' around a decade ago seemed to be an attempt to gladhand neds and be off the streets (the wardens, that is) by the time the drunks spill out of the pubs, with the best the politicians can come up with regarding the light touch approach to policing drink-related disorder being to raise the price of alcohol, which is likely to be as effective as raising the price of Blackberries (the communications device, not the fruit!) would have been in quelling this week's riots south of the border.

Therefore in 1977 The Clash effectively explained the reasons why Scotland isn't witnessing the riots which have beset London and other large English cities this week, and thus to an extent the basis for the resultant purely political dimension dominating today's Scotsman headlines.

But on the other hand the policing and law and order issues are largely similar throughout the UK, and in effect the tolerance of more low level wrongdoing ultimately begets more serious problems and hence a more robust policing response.

However, rather than presaging a police state of water cannons and rubber bullets, turning this around would instead entail addressing low level misdemeanours and criminality from the bottom up, which would ultimately decrease more serious crime and disorder and hence avoid the more coercive state solution.

From a political and policing perspective, on the other hand, the chances of this happening are remote indeed. But excusing wrongdoing on the basis of things like race, poverty and social status ultimately makes things worse, both for the perpetrators and for wider society.


barbarian said...

Some of the immigration was forced upon the UK thanks to Idi Amin.

But what is it that polticians like about "multiculturalism"? People of different races and cultures live quite happily together.

But then you have the communities which close up and then demand separate rights and laws. That is where some - not all - of the problems lie.

Perhaps Scotland could follow the Australian attitude to immigration, but that wouldn't look good for the politicians who want to grab every vote going, with scant consideration of the consequences.

Stuart Winton said...


Don't know if you saw lawyer Aamer Anwar on Newsnicht this week, who was babbling on about police 'executing' the guy who was shot in Tottenham and that the rioters were subject to racist policing.

Of course, there's no doubt an element of that, but his type convey the impression that any police action at all is considered racist if the subject is a member of an ethnic minority group.