London Riots: the consumer Bonfires

It may seem like there was no reason for the riots or rants, but there’s a lesson in it if we really want to see it.

world Updated: Aug 13, 2011 23:28 IST
AA Gill
AA Gill

I know what caused it, if you’re interested. Despite the wisenheimers’ head-scratching, garment-rending, finger-wagging and tooth-sucking, I actually do know the reason that out of the clear blue sky we were afflicted with a Biblical, mythological, medieval plague of rioting.

It was all the fault of the clear blue sky. It was hubris what done it. We’d actually begun to believe our luck had changed, that we’d cracke the fate thing, the auguries were all promising.

We’re not in the euro area. We’ve dodged the US downgrade. All the government’s “cuts with care” seem to be slowly working, or at least not not working. There’s a scintilla of growth. The coalition government felt grown up, the Olympics construction is coming in ahead of time and budget, even the bloody old weather was good. And England is beating India in the test series, we’re about to become top nation at cricket, and that’s never happened in living memory.

We were lulled and gulled and played for fools, beginning to think we could be winners. It was fatal. The national temperament is pessimistic fortitude. Our factory setting is dull stoicism. We are the nation of good losers, of make do and make tea.

Nemesis came as a letter from Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi calling on Prime Minister David Cameron to resign, as he’d lost the trust of his people. Iran offered solidarity to the young freedom fighters in Tottenham. In other circumstances it might have been funny. Seen through a smoking high street, it was galling. But when the politicians got up to the podium and barked that we weren’t dealing with protesters, they were common criminals, and would feel the full force of the law, well, it sounded familiar. It sounded like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

The thing that raised the thermostat of fury wasn’t the kids in the street but the inability of the law to get anywhere near them. Police officers, weighed down, huddled in shop doorways as businesses burnt.

The country that invented the modern police and the common law they uphold, that prided itself on its manners and fair play, had within hours descended to the point where it couldn’t fulfill the most basic covenant of a state: to protect the lives and property of its citizens. It’s been a bad year, a bad century, for the police; hog-tied with red tape and form-filling, lectured about political correctness and service-provider jargon, accused of cheap corruption they were caught in a stunned inertia.

If the police were found wanting, then at least the commentators weren’t. This was their moment. Newspaper columnists and swivel-chair TV pundits, talk-radio bores and bloggers, all rose gothically to the occasion and built cathedrals of steepling opinion, buttressed with assertion and selective observation. We may be short of coppers, but we have more than enough opinions.

One of the skills of a print columnist is to neatly combine apparently unrelated stories to plait events in an attractive and clever way. So it was a pleasure for many of them to see the fear and panic in financial markets as karmically linked to youths breaking into sportswear shops.

Capitalism had flaunted a crass and insistent consumerism in front of this generation, while ensuring they could never be part of it. The answer to this was apparently more opportunities, more jobs and more investment. So the cause was filthy capitalism, and the answer was more filthy capitalism.

The truth seems to be there was no truth. This was a rant without reason, not the northern provincial version of the Arab Spring; a Tottenham Summer. These rioters, when anyone could get one to talk to a camera instead of nicking it, were shamingly incoherent. They mumbled about lack of respect and free stuff, and the rest of us watching on televisions we’d actually paid for could hear our mothers going, “Both respect and stuff have to be earned, not given”.

There is no ideal or ism with this crowd, no righteous anger, no dream. This was just swift opportunism. Sensing a blind spot, a weakness, and exploiting it for quick profit, shorting your own neighborhood. So perhaps there was a lesson learned from the market after all.

It turned out that the most noble and moving figure to emerge through the broken glass and cinders wasn’t a policeman or politician or commentator, but a father, a devout Muslim, who’d given his dying son CPR after the boy had been struck by a car that witnesses say was used as a weapon of racism. The next morning he made a heart-rending and humbling speech for calm and understanding. And then it started to rain.

AA Gill is the restaurant and TV critic of the Sunday Times. In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post

First Published: Aug 13, 2011 23:26 IST