London riots: England's novelists and filmmakers saw the riots coming. Why didn't its politicians?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 10 2011 10:45 AM

"A Broken Britain"

England's novelists and filmmakers saw the riots coming. Why didn't its politicians?

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The way the crowds went wild was revealing. They went shopping. Like everybody in contemporary Britain, the underclass lives in the glare of advertisements that constantly nag to upgrade all consumer treasures, many of which were once reserved for the wealthiest but now are coveted by all, be they jewelry, champagne, or that ultimate accessory of the wealthy and urgent: the BlackBerry.

Not only did looters run directly for phone shops, they allegedly organized their actions with BlackBerry Messenger, which allows users to send private and free notes to each other. Technology also provided much of the footage, in which part of the crowd looted, part ran away, another section looked bewildered, and the rest filmed it on their phones. Rarely did one see the police storming in.

Home Secretary Theresa May defended the "robust policing" and pledged more "robust policing," praising the bravery of officers. No reasonable person doubts the courage of an officer facing a mob. Every reasonable person must ask why the policing system failed so grievously.

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Last year, May addressed a police superintendents' annual conference on the issue of government spending cuts. "The British public don't simply resort to violent unrest in the face of challenging economic circumstances," she said then. "As any experienced senior police officer will confirm," she added, "the effectiveness of a police force depends not primarily on the absolute number of police officers in the force but the way those officers are used."

However, when it comes to confronting a mob, numbers do matter. On Monday night, London had only 6,000 officers to control a city besieged. In the east London neighborhood of Dalston, Turkish shopkeepers took matters into their own hands, forming a vigilante group that ran shrieking at looters. Other fearful residents evidently bought baseball bats. (The violent Amazon review cited above did not last long; by Wednesday morning, it had been taken down.)

Perhaps the worst damage once the wreckage is cleared will be to public morale—the awful realization that this society contains an element so hostile and disengaged as to rip apart the businesses and homes of its neighbors at the slightest opportunity.

At least hope was found in the heartening acts of volunteers who went out in the daylight and cleaned up. This prompted comments about the spirit of London, an ideal that was famously exemplified during the Blitz when the city stuck together despite adversity and attack. Sadly, an ideal of unity is harder to maintain when attack comes from within.

Two competing political narratives have already emerged to explain what happened. That Tory spending cuts led to exasperation and explosion in poor and neglected communities. Or that Labour coddling of the criminal and the lazy allowed for a culture of personal irresponsibility.

Whichever it is, each amounts to an admission of a "Broken Britain." Cameron helped popularize that term when campaigning to oust Labour, after it had governed from 1997 to 2010. And he won. Now, it's his to fix.

Tom Rachman is the author of The Imperfectionists.

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