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?

Riot police tackle a mob after a number of cars are set alight in Hackney, north London on August 8, 2011. Click image to expand.
Riot police engage a mob in north London

LONDON—A big gainer these days in the Amazon U.K. sales ranking under "sports and leisure" is baseball bats. One customer review for the Rucanor aluminum baseball bat (its sales up 6,541 percent on Tuesday afternoon over the preceding 24 hours) suggested why: "Thanks to the ergonomic handle, one easy swing should be enough to shatter patellas, skulls, or any other bone on your targeted looter. Personally, I would recommend also investing in some fingerless gloves for extra grip."

After days of rioting during which thugs often appeared more confident in the streets than the police trying to stop them, Britain was in a state of shock and trauma at this astonishing loss of control. A lockdown Tuesday night in London involving 10,000 additional police officers appeared to have restored order to the capital, but violence flared in other cities. By Wednesday morning, the authorities had reported a total of 1,335 arrests, including more than 750 in London and 300 in Manchester.

The looting and arson began Saturday after a police shooting that killed a suspect in a rough area of north London. Soon, rioting spread, infecting areas in the south, east, west of the capital, then Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester, even the small cathedral city of Gloucester. In London, it wasn't only crime-ridden areas that were hit. On Monday night, a marauding horde smashed into a two-star Michelin restaurant in the affluent neighborhood of Notting Hill, robbing dinner guests before the staff armed themselves with rolling pins and chased out the gang.

Early afternoon Tuesday, some shops in London had already pulled down their shutters, fearful of what might befall their windows as darkness approached. Employers sent staff home to get them off the streets early. In some cases, police advised residents not to venture out after dark.

Even by day, this has been a dark summer for Britain, a summer when a rock shifted, baring a swarm of discontent and dark impulses. There was the phone-hacking scandal, which exposed the foul workings of a popular press that has fed the public appetite for crass scoops and scurrilous gossip. Next, the London stock index crashed, along with other markets around the world. Then, the cities burned.

When violence broke out, much of the political class was nowhere to be found. August is a time when the powerful of Britain grab a bit of sun abroad. Worryingly, the elected leaders seemed to have left almost no one to run the place. Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor Boris Johnson of London, among many other politicians, resisted calls to come home because of the rioting—until suddenly, they admitted the gravity of the situation and rushed back, in some cases receiving jeers when they wandered past burned-out buildings that the authorities had failed to protect.

The political class may have been caught out, but the culture betrayed signs of problems earlier, telegraphing anxieties of the law-abiding citizenry that a brutal underclass might at any moment elbow its way into their homes. Ian McEwan's 2005 novel Saturday tells of a London neurosurgeon who crosses paths with a demented thug, only to have the man invade his life and threaten his family. The book's resolution is rather optimistic, with the surgeon's daughter—forced to strip before the thug—managing to subdue him by reading poetry. Another example of these lurking worries appears in David Abbott's 2010 novel The Upright Piano Player, in which a lonely retired London ad executive is harassed by a violent sociopath, also after an unfortunate chance encounter.

A more cathartic resolution came in the 2009 film Harry Brown, in which Michael Caine plays an aging military veteran who served in Northern Ireland but now finds himself in a miserable housing estate ruled by young criminals. Bloodshed ensues and the old man emerges triumphant. While novels and cinema expressed the fears of establishment Britons, pop culture was taking inspiration from the underclass, as in the comedy-drama series Shameless (now remade in a U.S. version), about a dysfunctional family in Manchester.

Meanwhile, youth fashion displayed influences, too. As the state sought to curb anti-social behavior with CCTV surveillance cameras, a new style gained currency: the hood, which proved standard looting attire, as seen in disturbing videos of gleeful mobs smashing storefronts, nearly all in hoodies or balaclavas.

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.

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.