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Discerning Britain's smoke and fire

Andrew Hamilton |  10 August 2011

One of my British colleagues commented drily about the London riots, 'It's what happens when it's the school holidays, the kids are bored and we get two weeks of long, warm, dry evenings. Bit of heavy rain would put a stop to it.'

A minimalist explanation, but its earthiness and local sense rightly question the huge theoretical, not to mention apocalyptic, superstructures that are being erected on the nihilistic behaviour of excitable young people. Such events have everyday causes. They conceal as much as they reveal deeper, underlying conditions.

That said, it is possible to reflect, not on the deep causes that we cannot see, but on the normal things that we might have expected to see in the scenes of destruction in London, but did not see.

The most striking absence was that of authoritative adult figures. The figures we saw on TV screens were young, many of them children. We saw no sign of parents searching for or curbing them; no local community leaders intervening in the mayhem; no mayors or councillors, no local clergy or doctors, no police. Almost the only adults we saw were those who had suffered powerlessly in the riots.

Only at the beginning, when a group of local women went to the police station to find out what had happened to the alleged police shooting victim Mark Duggan, only to be rebuffed, was there space made for the authority of elders. That in retrospect was the last opportunity of avoiding the riots.

Ultimately the only figures of authority who seemed to matter were the Prime Minister and his police chiefs. He returned from holidays, gathered with the heads of the police, and they planned the fight-back. That was the lowest level, it seemed, at which authority could be exercised.

This leads to the second thing lacking in what we saw. There was no sense of society, nor of connection of the kind that generates respect. The furniture shop of a patently good man, a feature of his suburb for some generations, was burned down by people who would have been his neighbours. The experience of the rioters seemed ecstatic, an ecstasy that alienated them from everyone else.

The absence of adult authority and of connection underlines the perceptiveness of my colleague's remarks. Schools provide adult figures of authority. They also provide predictable forms of connection.

The third thing lacking was a sense of purpose. If there was a grand design in the riots, as some suggested —  the hidden hand of masterminds with blackberries — it was not evident in the smashing and grabbing. The reality was banal. The pillaging was a matter of every individual for themselves. The  booty of choice was a low range of consumer goodies. What mattered were not essentials but superfluities.

These absences invite us to reflect on the deeper things that may be lacking in our society. The emphasis on individual choice, which has freed us from the unreasonable constraints of tradition, does weaken connections through families and natural groups.

It also weakens, sometimes helpfully, sometimes corrosively, hierarchical authorities. It hollows out some of the pillars on which society has rested. So it is legitimate to ask how we can encourage forms of connection in society that nurture a variety of forms of authority.

The riots also raise questions about the Big Society which is the ideological badge of the current British Government. The slogan points to the need to develop intermediate bodies between Government and citizens. But it has been used to cut government funding to precisely those bodies that are points of connection for individuals.

Is not the misuse of money evident in the GFC and in the subsequent crippling of social programs in the name of consumer capitalism the one thing that might dimly be discerned in the smoke and fire of the riots? 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street



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Submitted comments

Thank you Andrew for a really perceptive analysis, the best I've seen, by far.

Paul Collins 11 August 2011

People are not so stupid that they do not notice the sheer moral bankruptcy of the rich and powerful. They may not always understand how the people "at the top" can get away with so much -- but the idea of getting away with things is not lost on them.

Eventually, that translates into "getting away with things" at a level that ordinary, poor people understand -- the destruction and looting of property.

This is not an excuse for either set of behaviours. I reject and abhor both forms of abrogation of social responsibility. But you cannot excuse one and condemn the other. That moral indulgence is not open to anyone.

Mormon Socialist 11 August 2011

A thoughtful article. At one level, the riots can be boxed away as random criminality, and the notion of a social uprising dismissed, but at another level, such a response is superficial. The point is, when people are happy and well-fed and comfortable, they don't burn buildings and steal TVs.

So Andrew's final question seems right on point. We have to ask why are some/many people not happy? And when will politicians and the media stop bragging/chattering about "economic growth" as if it included everyone?

Stephen Kellett 11 August 2011

This is an excellent analysis by "men seeing things as they are"(GBS)in particular the absence of authority and respect for each other or property.After the performance of authority and leadership in British society over the last 40 years it is a marvel that this sort of behaviour has taken so long to take hold in the public sphere. Witness that position of authority and respect the populace survive on - the intellectually challenged Royals with their lack of morals, the public lascivity of the man destined to become king,the lowest educational standards in the developed world, the feared soccer hoodlums who have terrifed Europe for nearly 50 years, the highest teenage unmarried pregnancy rate in the world and the obscenity of the money paid to uneducated footballers and role model pop stars, actors and drug addicts who provide the lifestyle aspired to by young Brits. Admire the progressive destruction of that once crown in the jewel of Christendom the English Catholic Church, the cradle of some of the greatest saints both canonised and otherwise and the abandonment of its usurper, the Anglican Church, by its ministers in droves. Leadership??? From whom? we might ask.

Certainly not from the scandal ridden politicians and press, not from the disgraceful efforts of Thatcher, the progenitor of Britain's current poor and obscene, undeserving rich; and certainly not from the labor party which has destoyed the fabric of British society though mindless multiculturalism, unaffordable social welfare, abandonment of education and health, and the creation of a dependent underclass who would never vote out of government the hand that feeds them and places no obligation on their responsibilities to society.Fortunately,by some miracle a new government, a coalition spawned by the fact that not sufficient people supported any major party to govern in its own right is trying to turn things around. It will need more than luck. It will take a bloody miracle. Wake up Australia. We are being taken along the same route. Crikey! I had better stop now even though there is much more.

Mind you, I think Elizabeth II has been exemplary in her role and I am not a dedicated Republican.

John Frawley 11 August 2011

It's sobering to realise that, in comparison, there were no looting and rioting in post-tsunami Japan. Is this a cultural divide or simply different human behaviour?

Alex Njoo 11 August 2011

If Andrew's colleague has given us an example of Jesuit "earthiness and local sense" in his "minimalist explanation" trivialising the current "kids" riots in London, then he's never taught in a London comprehensive. Thirty-five years ago my wife, then a young teacher, taught in a number of schools in London. In places like Camden and even in a flash district like St John's Wood (Quentin Kynaston), the schools were in chaos. One small example of this chaos was that when the students came into class, the teachers had to give each of them a sheet of paper and a pencil. All they brought with them was 20p to pay for their school lunch. The British police are the best in the world at controlling the mob.They are calculating and can be brutal Does anyone believe that there will now be cuts in police recruitment or offers of redundancy? Of course not.They've done a "softly softly" job on the rioters to protect their own numbers.They've intrigued so well that they're getting their water cannons back from Ireland. My advice to the next mob of bored school kids who set out to loot and burn: Get ready to earn your first stripes!

Claude Rigney 11 August 2011

Readers might be interested in an article dealing with some of the issues in Andrew's reflection in today's edition of The Guardian (UK). Here's the link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/10/riots-reflect-society-run-greed-looting

JOHN REGAN 11 August 2011

I was enjoying John Frawley's building tirade on the collapse of English society until he started on his stuff about "that once crown in the jewel of Christendom the English Catholic Church, the cradle of some of the greatest saints both canonised and otherwise and the abandonment of its usurper, the Anglican Church, by its ministers in droves."

This is woeful church history. Period. Also, moral leadership is not the preserve of one church and if John wants to read some of the best public warnings about, indeed outright criticisms of, the laissez-faire capitalism and governmental destruction of English institutions and modern day societal harmony he should start with the many statements and books of the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

PHILIP HARVEY 11 August 2011

As one who respects the Jesuit tradition of thinking before speaking, I am disappointed by the condescending off-handedness of Andrew's colleague and clearly also by Andrew's acceptance of, and building on, that comment.

Seeing the rioting with its destruction and looting as an expression of the frustration and loss of hope that comes from long-term unemployment is certainly not an apocalyptic perspective. The one positive paragraph in Andrew's article is the hopelessly understated final par that speaks of "misuse of money ... and the subsequent crippling of social programs..."

The events in London cannot be separated from the demonstrations in Athens where people also respond to imposed financial austerities which target those least able to bear reduction in living standards. Ireland, no longer the Celtic Tiger, is economically reduced to a whimpering pussy-cat, and the recent "breakthrough" in ensuring supply in USA is setting the scene for America to follow suit.

When it comes to Jesuit commentary on community responses to economic disparity in a nation, I much prefer the overlay of 1970s Latin American liberation theology than that of any modern day comfortable English priest.

Ian Fraser 12 August 2011

Thank you, Ian, for your rebuke. You are but one of many who over my Jesuit lifetime have chided me for not thinking before I speak. Alas, I am incorrigible. But I should defend my English colleague before others tar him with the same brush.

His point was that too many people were too quickly making the disturbances into proofs of their predetermined theses. They did not look carefully at the everyday contexts of the events before incorporating them into grand theory. The context of school holidays and long evenings were important because they allowed young people leisure to gather and focus on what to them were exciting enterprises. This was just one of many factors that were specific to the events in Britain.

Of course, the broader contexts of economic and social policies, of economic individualism, of patterns of child-rearing, of racial tension, among others, are also important. But it is a stretch to say that any one of these contexts solely or principally explained what happened in England. The spark was different than in Greece, the actors were different, and the actions were different. Any reasonable account of the events needs to take account of these differences.

That said, of course, I do agree with you that the cuts in public spending in England will exacerbate unemployment, depress economic growth and impose burdens precisely on those already deprived. This will provide fuel, among other fuel, for future civil disturbance.

Andy Hamilton 12 August 2011

These riots should not be surprise to anyone. They are the result of people being alienated from society, especially access to university places, trade schools and well paid jobs. The same rioting could happen in Australia. I heard of an Access Economics report done a few years ago which found that the real enemployment rate in some outer suburbs of Melbourne varied between 17% and 24%. Youth unemployment was often above 30% and middle aged male unemployment was above 45%.

In many of these suburbs, family relationships are dysfunctional and domestic violence is common. I suspect many of these people feel alienated and may be inspired to take similar action.

Mark Doyle 12 August 2011

I read the article and the comments so far and the one comment I agree with the most is that of John Frawley.

The break down of the traditional family, the multi-culturism, the lack of respect for any kind of boundaries and the Godlessness of secular society have brought barbarism, brutality and savagery to a once Christian Britain.

Everybody needs to place themselves under the Social Reign Of Our Lord, Jesus Christ and learn humility, obedience and a desire to do God's Will at all times otherwise we will self-deatruct though anarchy and inhumanity and our souls lost for eternity

Trent 12 August 2011

Thanks Andrew for your response and further comments.

BTW, I was educated by MSCs who maybe don't enjoy the august reputation of the Jesuits, but I would vouch for them any time for clarity of thought and for not clouding religious teaching with the superfluous baggage picked up over the last two millennia.

Ian Fraser 13 August 2011

Where is the evidence, Trent, that 'multi-culturism' was a causal factor in this violence? Even our commercial radio shock-jocks and the Murdoch tabloids haven't made that claim. Had the faces in the mob all been black, I'm sure that the media would have pointed at 'alien cultures'; but because of the presence of so many white faces in the mob means it has had to fall back on 'criminality'. Your 'explanation' takes no account of the evidence. Life is more complicated than you suggest.

Ginger Meggs 14 August 2011

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