Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anarchy in the UK

(The following post contains general comments/thoughts on what’s been happening in the UK this week. On a personal note, my thanks to friends overseas who’ve contacted me over the past 72 hours asking if I’m okay. Much appreciated, guys.)

I posted on my Facebook status yesterday an observation that the riots taking place in various areas of the UK – including my home town of Nottingham – have brought out the inner right winger in a number of people who hitherto wore their liberal credentials on their sleeves.

I’ve spent three days sitting at work listening to reasonably educated people (many from outlying areas of the city completely unaffected by the riots) fulminate at those responsible as mindless, thuggish, work-shy freeloaders who have no political motivation but are just out to cause destruction and loot shops. Which is probably true of the vast majority of the rioters. But the mistake that’s being made here is that rioters, looters and genuine protestors are being lumped into the same group.

I’ve also spent three days listening to reasonably educated, supposedly liberal, middle class people from unaffected areas advocate the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, tear-gas or even armed response. I’ve heard people, without a trace of irony, talking about bringing back Borstals, National Service and the death penalty. I can’t imagine a less appropriate response to what’s currently happening. It’s a form of parochialism that reveals he who espouses it as little better than the hooded thug actually throwing a firebomb. One is physically undertaking a violent act, the other is suggesting that a violent act be undertaken in their name and on their behalf or – worse – implying that a heavy-handed anti-youth police state would prevail if they had their way.

I’ve also listened to a lot of pontificating about the causes of the rioting. What happened in London was sparked off by the fatal shooting of a man by Metropolitan officers. What’s getting lost in all the tabloid proselytizing is that the friends and family of the deceased, who turned up at a police station in Tottenham demanding answers, did so with the intent of staging a peaceful protest. Events exacerbated after a teenage girl who threw stones was attacked by police. Other incidences of rioting have been blamed on job cuts.

Have you ever been on a fire safety course or done it as part of an induction at work? Remember the fire triangle? You need fuel, heat and oxygen for a fire to break out. A spark itself does not cause a fire. The environment needs to be conducive. What sparks off a riot is seldom the reason for it. There has to be a tinderbox atmosphere for conflagration to ensue. And it’s generally the case that this atmosphere has been simmering away for quite some time before things erupt.

One of the most facile questions I’ve heard asked is “What’s going through the heads of the rioters while they smash windows and burn buildings?” My best guess would be: nothing much. They’re probably too driven by adrenaline, anger, frustration and the suddenly presented opportunity for destructive catharsis to do much intellectualizing about things.

The question that should be asked, and which I’m not seeing anywhere in the media or on Facebook, is this:

What created the atmosphere of disaffection and disenfranchisement so palpable in England at the moment that the riots were able to happen?

To answer that depends on how far you want to go back and how wide you want to throw the net. Personally, I’d say the seeds were sown during the 1984-85 miners’ strike when the government effectively turned the police and the armed forces against its own citizens in order to break the power of the unions. The damage done to workers’ rights was devastating. A succession of milquetoast governments have gradually acceded power to corporate entities. The Blair government – which I came to think of as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bush administration – spent three terms dismantling a tranche of basic civil liberties. The fall-out was voter apathy and political troilism (New Conservative and New Labour being virtually indistinguishable) at the last general election. The result: a coalition government. Herein the first problem: nobody votes for a coalition. Ergo we have a government that nobody wants. A government opposed by a party that has drifted so far from what Labour once stood for that its current leader, Ed Milliband, sat on the fence during last month’s public sector strike action instead of voicing support for the workers. In other words, we have no-one to believe in politically.

Now factor in the current state of the economy. For two years in the UK we had what the tabloids delighted in calling the “credit crunch”, a recession created by the greed of the financial institutions and perpetuated by media hyperbole. We’re still riding the tail-end of it, with the job market dead and buried and those of us still in work putting up with wage freezes or even cuts, while the price of living, the price of fuel and the cost of insurance keep going up and up. On a personal note, my house is in negative equity and I’m on an IVA which will last another four years. I am more or less working for nothing. I have no chance of putting aside any savings or investing towards my retirement, and won’t have for some time to come. Do I condone the rioters? No. Do I understand why someone would be filled with enough negative energy to do something destructive? Sadly, and with a heavy heart, I have to admit that yes, I do. The difference is that, if I didn’t have words as a weapon and this blog and/or social networking sites as a forum, I would be directing my negative energy by hurling a brick at the Houses of Parliament or the corporate headquarters of one of the financial institutions or one of the Murdoch-owned media organizations rather than through the window of a sports shop or a Tesco Metro.

Ah yes, the Murdoch media empire. A rapacious entity that even controls The Times, proof if any were needed that nothing is sacred. If political disenfranchisement and economical hardship weren’t enough to create a tinderbox atmosphere, we’ve just seen incontrovertible evidence that the media have perpetrated gross acts of exploitation, milking the grief of people who were at their most vulnerable at the time. Rampantly illegal acts; violation of privacy; leering and amoral voyeurism parcelled up under the disguise of journalism and disseminated to the public. And when someone does what just about everyone I know wanted to do and slaps a foam pie in Murdoch’s face during the hearings, what happens? They give him six weeks in jail. While David Cameron, who was accused last month of violating the ministerial code in his association with Murdoch, is not only not in jail but running (in the loosest sense of the word) the country.

So: we have an economically fucked nation that’s been betrayed politically for two and half decades and is currently in the hands of a government nobody voted for whose key player has links to the man responsible for a media, pitched intellectually and culturally at the lowest common denominator, which is guilty of lies, exploitation and illegal acts.

This is why an atmosphere exists which is conducive what we have seen over the last few days. But you won’t hear it from the mouth of a politician because it would an admission that they’ve failed, and you won’t see it debated in the media because it would be an admission that they’re part of the problem.

I don’t condone the rioting. My sympathies are with those who have been adversely affected. But it’s difficult to see the riots as anything other than an inevitability.


Unknown said...

Well done, sir. Very eloquent and from the heart.

Have you see that Joe Cornish film ATTACK THE BLOCK? Eerie parallels between it and the riots. Check out this review:

le0pard13 said...

Hear, hear.

Samuel Wilson said...

Neil, I appreciate the opportunity to get an unfiltered, un-media-ted account of this story. The rioters need to be stopped, but anyone who thinks riots will be prevented just by slapping these people down hard enough is kidding himself. Whatever the pretexts will be, I fear we'll see more along these lines all over the world.

BRENT said...

Well said and I think most countries suffer the same problems It is incredible to see such scenes from a country that is considered 'civilised' and 'cultured'. But then again who would have ever predicted a mass murderer in Norway?
I've also sat in rooms with the ill informed putting in their opinions even though they areoe a world away. It is easier to rubbish the rioters instead of looking at the frustrations that lead them to such actions. By rioting they do leave themselves open to condemnation and yet they are put into a position of what else is left for them to do in making a statement. I don't condone but I do sympathise.

On a off beat note The Stig from Top Gear in the most recent episode to air here in NZ is supposed to not recognise the existence of Nottinghamshire!!
What says the resident of that fair city have to say??!

Franco Macabro said...

Damn Neil, I saw the riots on the news, they reminded me of what was going on in my own country a while back. Remember? When we collaborated on the Viva La Revolution articles?

If you read through those articles you'll see they had lots of frustration and anger in them, and it's because that's what naturally bubbles up when people are opressed and feel powerless to do anything about it. I never participated in the riots, but I was right there with them feeling that anger.

Dont know if you remember, but I also mentioned a bit about how the media controlled the point of view of the masses by referring in a generalizing manner to students and rioters as drug addicts and hippies. Or making it look like they are the ones responsible for the chaos, and leaving out the dismantling of human rights that was going on in a day to day basis.

So sad to see this type of thing going on in the world Neil, but it seems that its happening more and more around the world.

I'm with you man, I never participated in the violence, I had to work and live my life, but I was emotionally with them, and I understood where it was all coming from, anger and violence doesnt just appear from a nation, from the people, for no reason whatsoever.

You mess with the people, your gonna get the riots. It's one of the symptoms of a sick and abbusive government.

Neil Fulwood said...

J.D. – ‘Attack the Block’ is still queued on my rental list (I missed it on the big screen). Thanks for the link. Hell of a good article, and the note the author ends on, quoting the Norwegian Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Breivik massacre, is a mindset David Cameron could do well to learn from instead of the proselytizing nonsense he’s been coming out with today.

le0pard13 – thank you.

Sam – one of the very very few intelligent status updates I saw on FB while the riots were in full swing said “we need to remember in the aftermath of this that we need more democracy not less”. The mistake, time after time, is for governments to respond with greater powers for the police and a reduction in civil liberties for the citizenship, a move that can only engender greater mistrust and bad feeling.

Brent – thanks for your comment. You’ve eloquently summarized what I’ve been trying to get across to a lot of the people I’ve talked to over that last three days, that I don’t condone or support rioters, but that I do understand – and it’s important for society and the media and the politicians to understand – the reasons that people can feel so frustrated and disenfranchised that these negative feelings find expression in the form of a riot. While I personally would never lob a firebomb or loot a shop, it’s all too easy to look at how many members of the current cabinet have fiddled sums in the tens of thousands of pounds in fraudulent expenses claims – and got away with it – and think to yourself well, what’s £50’s worth of nicked goods from Carphone Warehouse in comparison? (BTW, on behalf of Nottinghamshire, we recognise the holy trinity of Clarkson, Hammond and May but The Stig is hereby excommunicated.)

Franco – your photos of the protests in your country were the first thing I thought of when the riots in the England started. You’re absolutely right when you say “anger and violence doesn’t just appear from a nation, from the people, for no reason whatsoever” – there is always a root cause, and it’s usually tied into oppression, social injustice and poverty. Right now our politicians and our media are stonily ignoring this, and in doing so they risk the whole thing happening again.

Thanks for your comments, guys, and thank you to everyone, whether in the comments section or by FB or email, has passed on their concern for me and my wife’s well-being during the unrest.