Philip Johnston, Telegraph (London), December 5, 2011
Well, that didn’t take long–just four months to turn the summer rioters from the scum of the earth into victims. There we all were during those tense few days in August, glued to our TV screens as shops were looted and homes burned to the ground, misguidedly thinking that the police had lost control of the streets to a rag-tag army of opportunistic, feral criminals.
In reality, what we were witnessing was a protest by politically sophisticated, disenchanted and alienated young people driven to despair by police brutality. This, at any rate, is what we are invited to believe by a study commissioned by The Guardian, in collaboration with the London School of Economics, and published across eight pages of the newspaper yesterday under the heading “Reading the Riots”. Needless to say, the BBC ran with the story all day.
Now, there is nothing wrong with researching the causes of the worst outbreak of lawlessness in this country since the early Eighties. It is right to try to put what happened into context, since so many of us were shocked and angered. But the Left has been desperate to seize back what it likes to call the “narrative” of these riots, which was hijacked early on by the law-abiding majority who just happened to witness most of it.
As the mess was cleared up, and a motley procession of ne’er-do-wells appeared before the courts for a taste of condign punishment that the rest of us cheered to the rafters, the Left seethed with indignation. Since the fires were still smouldering and the funerals of those who died had yet to take place, its spokesmen were unable to line up their usual excuses for bad behaviour: deprivation, poverty, hopelessness–and, of course, police brutality. Nor could they trot out the previously unsuccessful remedies: more money, intervention, community penalties–anything but punishment.
However, they also knew that if they could bide their time, there might be another story to tell; and sure enough “Reading the Riots” provides it. All those dreadful, white, middle-class, Right-wing moralisers were wrong: gang culture was not to blame; the rioters weren’t mostly black; they weren’t an underclass: in fact, many were surprisingly political, but found it hard to articulate their grievances without chucking a brick through a shop window or stealing a TV set.
Yes, they saw the riots as the chance to obtain “free stuff”–you know, what most of us would refer to as “theft”. As one Guardian columnist put it: “The impression of unclaimed chaos and the shots of burning cars, devastated shopkeepers and hooded youth lent credibility to claims that this was nothing more than young hooligans running amok.” But this was not mindless yobbery; it was “civil unrest” and could therefore be seen in class terms.
Of course, those of us who naively sought to place the riots in an ethical context never considered that the causes might be a complex mixture of motives. We are obviously far too stupid. It suits the Left to caricature the majority response at the time as Blimpish outrage so that it can redirect the argument back on to its own, threadbare turf. And what did it find at the root of the rioters’ anger with society? You guessed it–a pathological dislike of the police.
The irony here is that everyone blames the police. Most of us were furious that they stood back when the trouble kicked off in Tottenham and let every thief and thug in London–and later in Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere–think they could loot with impunity. But the reason they adopted these tactics was precisely because, ever since the Brixton riots in 1981, they have had to police what we are supposed to refer to as “communities” with kid gloves.
Yet it transpires that all the efforts to engage, reach out and understand have been spurned and that they are still unpopular. The researchers interviewed 270 people who took part in the riots, a majority of whom had not been arrested but who were guaranteed anonymity. Alex, 32, who set fire to a police car in Tottenham on the night the disturbances began was asked why he did it. “It was the police car–I know what they stand for. I hate the f——police.” I wonder why? Might it be because his criminal propensities had brought him to their attention and he had been routinely stopped and searched?
Since the Scarman report, the police have bent over backwards to avoid the sort of heavy-handedness that triggered the Brixton riots. Yet a bunch of wide-eyed researchers with clipboards and an agenda have discovered that people who regularly break the law and who are ready at the drop of a hat to head out into the summer night for a spot of mayhem don’t like the police very much. Well, I never. One rioter told the researchers, presumably while struggling to keep a straight face: “The police is the biggest gang out there.” If only.
Let’s remember who the real victims of the riots were: the storekeepers whose properties were ransacked; the old man beaten to death in a west London street; the foreign student mugged by youths he thought were helping him; the owners of the 150-year-old family furniture store who watched it burn to the ground; and, despite all the criticism they have faced for letting the riots spread, the bruised and bloodied police officers who put their necks on the line to contain the trouble when it threatened to get completely out of control.
Yesterday’s report purported to have uncovered broader explanations for the behaviour of the rioters. I will stick with my narrow, simplistic, evidently absurd, and doubtless antediluvian interpretation that a bunch of criminally inclined hoodlums took the opportunity to loot, pillage and rob because they enjoyed doing it and thought they could get away with it.