by Alan Harding, Director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance.
Question. What do Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Nottingham, Islington, Haringey, Salford, Sandwell, Leicester, Greenwich, Lewisham and Camden have in common? Two correct answers that I’m not looking for are, firstly, that they all recently suffered the worst rioting seen on British streets since the early 1980s and, secondly, that a depressingly large number of them had witnessed similar scenes thirty years previously. These observations should nonetheless give us pause for thought, especially when politicians and opinion formers have been so keen to emphasise that ‘this is not a repeat of the 1980s’.
At one level the talking heads are right, of course. Poor relations between ethnic minority youths and police, exacerbated by the indiscriminate use of stop and search powers, was much less of an issue this time around, even though the flashpoint in Tottenham rekindled tragic memories of deeply troubled police-community relations. And there’s little doubt that the desire to loot, whipped up via social messaging, drove many a discriminating contemporary rioter rather than became an additional temptation once more spontaneous acts of destruction had begun and the police had become distracted. Just as it would be foolish to argue that the rioters of 1981 were a more noble, politicised breed, though, so it would be churlish not to ask what parallels exist between now and the early 1980s.
Had Harriet Harman asked Michael Gove, during their celebrated stand-off on Newsnight, why he thought this scale of urban conflagration isn’t commonplace, he might have argued that mass outbreaks of ‘pure criminality’ are inexplicably cyclical. He might, however, have acknowledged that there seems to be something about the combination of a national economy in or near recession, high unemployment, eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and a further fading of the already-poor prospects for the young in our poorest communities that seems to require relatively little – a few days of good weather, a distant tragedy, a local incident, a Blackberry – to trigger mayhem.
There may also be a further factor. What if there’s a perception, amongst the recent perpetrators of violent destruction and theft, that nobody cares about their lives? Time to answer that original question with an unfortunate fact. The local authorities that cover the seventeen named areas each appear in the list of the top thirty authorities that are having to implement the largest net cuts in local spending.
Within months of Margaret Thatcher promising, in 1981, that her government would never reward rioters, we had the Scarman report, which ushered in a sea-change in community policing, and Michael Heseltine introduced his famous ‘it took a riot’ Cabinet paper to kick-start a new phase in urban policy. This time around, the recently-appointed Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, is said to have until Christmas to dream up a new cities strategy. Unless he’s confident that he can conquer global warming and produce cooler summers, he’s going to need all the help he can get.