London is Burning, but Austerity Measures Aren't to Blame

Last Thursday, officers from London’s hacking-beleaguered Metropolitan Police shot and killed Tottenham resident Mark Duggan during an attempted arrest.

Over the following days, unconfirmed, contradictory reports emerged as to whether Duggan was armed, or had fired a shot. Initial police statements have now been called into question following ballistics reports – with some suggesting that, though Duggan had a gun, it was found wrapped, unfired, in a sock.

On Saturday, people from the North London neighborhood gathered to march in what at first resembled a vigil. It did not remain so peaceful. That night crowds, mostly youths, clashed with riot police, torched buildings to the ground, and looted local businesses.

Since then, violence and looting has flared up right across the capital, as far as Brixton in the south of the city and Walthamstow in the east. So why has a single incident affecting one local community prompted such widespread discord?

In a month of street riots, budget cuts and sovereign debt crises, it’s hard to resist comparisons to Greece – and indeed, if you read much of the coverage in the U.S. media it would seem that London is in the grips of a raging anti-austerity protest.

The New York Times’ Ravi Somaiya describes these riots as the latest episode in a “season of unrest”. This fits with a wider media narrative that infuses the riots with a protest sentiment of opposition to budget cuts and corruption. Frustration, according to Somaiya, has mounted with “deep cuts in social services”, while disdain for the police amongst London’s Afro-Carribean population has been amplified by the “drumbeat of scandal that has racked Scotland Yard.” Links are made to student protests last year against rises in tuition fees, which also turned violent.

The perspective is not uniquely American, but it reads like a best-of compilation of British news that has made US headlines. Hacking, student protests, austerity – it’s all there, an enthralling narrative, but unfortunately a deeply flawed explanation of the present unrest.

It has to be admitted that cuts have shut down youth programs in London, so there are more disenfranchised and angry youths on the streets, as this eerily prescient video shows. 

Equally, I would concede that the phone hacking scandal has dragged the Met’s reputation through the muck, and it is possible that this provided part of the impetus for Saturday’s march.

Beyond those two points, there is little evidence that the riots, especially those since Saturday, are political. Most involved bear no relation to Mark Duggan, and live in different areas of the city. They manifestly have no protest agenda—  if you go to Hackney, where riots are ongoing as I write this, you will not see placards carried, or hear slogans chanted. You will see teenagers provoking police, breaking into shops, and stealing things. The closure of youth programs may leave more troubled teenagers idling in town centers, but it doesn’t make them anti-austerity protesters.

Granted, these are the actions of the disenfranchised. If social programs had brought greater prosperity and equality to London’s youth, they might not be looting and pillaging. But blaming the cuts, which have barely begun to come into effect, is a nonsense. The people rioting were alienated before the cuts, they didn’t degenerate into marauding zombies when the Chancellor of the exchequer announced the budget. 

The path linking phone hacking with tensions between police and Afro-Carribean Londoners is equally tortuous. The relationship of senior figures in Scotland Yard with News International has little if anything to do with the force's handling of black gun crime suspects, besides the fact that both have brought it disapproval. At any rate, many groups of copycat looters have been predominantly white. 

On Saturday, Somaiya’s analysis might have been quite compelling. At present, it doesn't match events on the ground. Initial strife in Tottenham may have been political, but it has been superseded by opportunistic vandalism and thievery.

The riots’ relation to present political controversies is best measured not in how they were determined by them, but in how they will impact them:

The metropolitan police, now without a permanent chief commissioner, will be under even greater pressure, as the Olympic Games approach. 

Many senior politicians will also be considering their personal standing in this situation – not least of all embattled Prime Minister David Cameron, who was on holiday as London began to burn, and like the city’s Mayor Boris Johnson, was rather slow to return.

Even if the cuts are not directly responsible, these events may give many pause for thought as they continue to be implemented. The Conservatives’ flagship “Big Society” agenda, feted in the USA but derided at home, is seemingly further tarnished, this week’s violence to many a brutal indicator of what can happen when the government leaves communities to work out their own problems. 

It is always tempting to weave a story that connects seemingly disparate strands in a clever way – yet to understand why so many British youths will, given an excuse and enough of a herd mentality, descend into pointless, violent destruction, you need to look back further than the last election. If the riots are the product of a malaise in British politics, they are the product of a longstanding one.

Theo Brainin is a globe trotting journalist based in London. He writes about American and British politics, media, religion and philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter or read his blog.