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  • Alan Martin

The Difference Between Riot and Wrong

I haven’t really talked about the UK riots. Not because they’re not important and interesting, but because my Pocket Gamer workload has really picked up. I’ve been reading other people’s analyses, but haven’t had time to put my own thoughts to keyboard.

I suppose I could pretend I wanted to let the dust settle a bit. When the trouble first broke out in Tottenham, I was on a stag weekend in Nottingham. When I returned, some looting was about 10 minutes walk from my current house in Deptford. And now, two weeks on, it’s very much a distant memory.

Except in terms of the law and order backlash on the way as a result. Since Cameron came back from holiday to save the day*, we’ve seen the kind of tough talk that hardline Tories love. Labour have mimicked it in a slightly diluted form - the difference between the two parties, as ever, proving to be like Coca Cola and Coke Zero. They’re both bad for you, but one of them is less obviously so in the short term.

But what’s really interested me about the fallout is how the reactions of the leading figures in our government and capital city reveal a total lack of empathy. They can't contemplate the validity of socio-economic motivations because that isn’t what motivates them.

Let’s take a look at their responses to the idea that rioters were spurred on by financial and ideological concerns:

David Cameron:

“This is not about poverty, it’s about culture,” Cameron said. “A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”

Boris Johnson has…

“heard too much sociological explanation and not enough condemnation.”

Nick Clegg, who predicted riots if the Tories pushed through austerity measures a year before he joined the coalition, has also changed his tune, saying it's “ludicrous” to suggest that riots have anything to do with spending cuts.

Just as well they’re not sociologists then. Dismissing cause and effect mere days after an event is pretty dangerous.

I’ve also heard next to nothing in the mainstream media trying to justify the riots as linked to politics - the most widely touted press narrative I’ve observed is that some people are just bad, and need a good slap. Anecdotally, it’s depressing to see quite so many previously liberal people wishing for police crackdowns as soon as things get slightly scary, with water cannons, tasers and even live ammo being on many people’s must-have Christmas wishlists.

So why do our leaders feel the need to dismiss sociological justifications when nobody with serious influence was plugging them in the first place?

It’s no coincidence I chose Clegg, Johnson and Cameron to quote. You don’t have to look hard for records of their youthful indiscretions which look suspiciously like vandalism and the same lack of respect they’re accusing of the 2011 youth.

Nick Clegg on his arson of a priceless collection of cacti while on exchange in Germany, aged 16:

We didn’t know what we were doing. We were teenagers, we’d drunk too much - frankly, we did behave appallingly, irresponsibly, criminally.”

David Cameron says he's “deeply embarrassed” about his membership of the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford University drinking society that deliberately trashes restaurants, and then lavishly pays for the damage on the way out. Boris Johnson used to be rather proud of his membership until people started to notice that condemning 2011 rioters for criminal damage was hypocritical even by his standards. George Osborne is also a Bullingdon alumnus, but is half way between Cameron and Johnson in his approach, neither boasting about it, nor apologising.

Did Clegg, Cameron, Johnson and Osborne vandalise people’s property because of poverty? Did they do it because they lacked a voice? Were they protesting austerity measures? Were they just plain bad?

No, no, no and probably not. And it’s because of this that I suspect they are unable to believe differently of others.

They’re happy to blame youthful inexperience for their own misdemeanors, but with Clegg 16, and Johnson, Osborne and Cameron aged 18-21 when they committed their vandalism, how can they be so hypocritical when looters in the 2011 riots are said to be as young as 9 - does youthful inexperience only count for those at expensive private schools and Oxford University?

Even more than the expenses scandal, even more than changes to the NHS and even more than the business with electoral reform, the political reaction to the riots has really underlined for me exactly how out of touch our elected officials are with 21st century Britain.

* As an aside: for all his myriad faults (and given I’m currently reading 'The End of the Party’, I think I’m putting that mildly) I can’t imagine Gordon Brown taking 3 days to return from holiday in the event of a national emergency

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Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet