The UK Riots and what they mean for British Politics

2011/08/10

Jim Callaghan tried to be avuncular and reassuring when he returned from a summit in the West Indies in 1979, as disputes with public-sector trade unions over pay controls defined Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’.

But the next day the loose journalistic ethics of the Sun turned this into devastating ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ headlines, at the prime minister’s expense.

Four months later, Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street, posing as a Churchillian ‘strong’ leader and ditching the post-war economic consensus on Keynesian demand management.

While this had sustained employment, it had led to growing inflation, given the preference of British unions for the unregulated labour market of ‘free collective bargaining’, rather than European-style social partnership. The jingoistic and viscerally anti-union Thatcher was certainly not going to embrace that.

Instead, she compounded the problem by returning Britain to the old-time religion of entirely ‘free’ markets. A generation of political leaders had been scarred by how had this been associated with the soaring inequality of the ‘roaring 20s’ and the Wall Street crash— leading to mass unemployment, fascism and war.

Under what the economics editor of the Observer called ‘sado-monetarism’, crippling interest and exchange rates devastated the UK’s manufacturing base. The return of mass unemployment, allied to privatisation and tax cuts favouring the already well-off, saw inequality rise dramatically, towards levels more characteristic of the US than mainland Europe.

And, just as US cities have periodically seen riots concentrated among desperate African-Americans, as sure as night follows day, riots erupted 30 years ago among the most marginalised youth in Britain. The inner cities of London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Leeds were all set aflame.

Inequality eased only marginally under John Major and remained unaffected under ‘New’ Labour. And so the riots recurred, in 1985 in Tottenham, in 1990 in central London against the inequitable ‘poll tax’ and in 2001, with the clashes between young whites and Asians in the decayed English mill towns.

No other European country, it bears underlining, has seen this tight nexus between social exclusion and race, translating into repeated volcanic outbursts of youth violence—the nearest parallel being France with its marginalised suburban young of north African origin, who rioted en masse in 2005.

Of course, the prime minister, David Cameron, and the home secretary, Theresa May—their holidays abruptly terminated by the crisis—have been determined to label the latest explosions as ‘pure criminality’, as they staked their claims for strong leadership on their return.

But it is perverse to deny any connection to the seizing up of the labour market for young people—a factor, too, in Belfast’s July riots—allied to the withdrawal of the educational maintenance allowance and hiking of university tuition fees. And those engaged in looting for designer labels in London are disturbingly echoing the ‘greed is good’ philosophy—as the financial magnate Gordon Gekko put it in Wall Street—celebrated by brash boys in braces in the City.

As in 1979, with government having sucked demand out of the economy by public spending cuts, output is flatlining and unemployment surging.  And, with income-tax receipts accordingly reduced and benefit expenditure consequently raised, austerity isn’t even helping to reduce Britain’s budget deficit—as Keynes said, look after unemployment and the budget will look after itself. So, however ministers strike moral poses, the riots have their own dynamic.

What has been missed amid the political black smoke is what Cameron didn’t say when he came back from Tuscany. He might surely have declared: ‘Before the general election, I warned that British society was broken. Some denied it but I was clearly right. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown left this mess and I will fix it.’

And the reason for this uncharacteristic modesty is clear. For Cameron, society was broken because of too much government and the solution was the ‘Big Society’ of personal responsibility and volunteering.

But no one was suggesting the riots were caused by too much government. Indeed, the cry everywhere was for the police—their numbers straitened by the austerity measures of the chancellor, George Osborne—to do more than stand by watching. And what would the ‘Big Society’ answer have been? Vigilantes with baseball bats?

Cameron’s political narrative is thus as exhausted as the hard-pressed residents of the blighted neighbourhoods. It never went down well in the Tory heartlands, whereas his ‘law and order’ rhetoric about charging juveniles will have matched the prejudices of those who believe there is no such thing as societies, only individuals and their families—as Thatcher so infamously put it.

But he has a political breathing space. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, having also cut short his holiday, has yet to articulate a clear alternative to capture the public mood. At the party conference next month in Liverpool, he needs to do so.