Britain Needs a Better Way to Get Rich Than Looting


Mark Duggan, father of four, was armed with a Bruni BBM semi-automatic pistol when he was shot dead by armed police on 4 August. Despite initial reports Duggan did not fire on the officers from the Trident Police Unit, an armed force dedicated to dealing with “gun related murders within London’s black communities”.

Duggan’s family were not told by police that he had died from his injuries but learned it from the news, in a report designed to deflect blame for the killing onto the victim. The vigil that Duggan’s friends and family held outside the Tottenham police station was a spark that set off rioting across Britain for the last week, and at the time of writing is still not under control.

Any political character to the initial rioting – as a protest against police brutality – quickly gave way to looting.

Looting broke out in urban centres, mostly those with a large black community – Tottenham, Enfield, Dalston and Croydon in London. The looters were for the most part young, and of all races, and they sought out popular clothing stores, like foot locker, jewellers and department stores. Some people were attacked in their homes. The “Gay’s the Word” bookshop in Marchmont Street was attacked on 8 August.

Later, looting spread to Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham – where a police station was firebombed.

One feature of the looting was the use of mobile phones, blackberries and Twitter accounts to rally looters to sites where, they rightly predicted, the police could be outmanoeuvred.

Still, it is worth pointing out that as rioting goes this recent outbreak, though widespread, has not been all that violent. Instead it has been more of a Feast of Fools, with the mob enjoying the humiliation of the authorities, as it raids the supermarkets for booze and clothes.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron has cut short his holiday in Tuscany to recall Parliament, and the London Mayor has come back too. The Drama Queen Cameron, sensing his big moment, promises tough measures to stop the rioting, issuing rubber bullets and water cannon to the police.  London courts processed 167 prisoners in unprecedented overnight sittings on 9-10 of August.

The cause of the riots has been identified by the Prime Minister and the London Mayor as a breakdown in authority – and they have a point. It is the British social system as a whole that has lost its way, with a collapse in authority in every level, from the police, the political system, school and parental authority but most severely in the system of work and reward.

Britain’s police force has most decidedly lost authority in recent times. The force used to have an authoritarian culture that was thuggish and racist under reactionary Chief Constables like Sir James Anderton in Manchester and Sir Kenneth Newman in London. But investigations into the police’s “institutional racism” have opened the way to a newer layer of technocratic leaders who were more interested in process than upholding a particular vision of public order.

Nobody would want to see the return of the old authoritarian policing, but the cadre that replaced them have lacked a guiding esprit de corps. The police have been seen as being corrupted by payments from News International’s investigators for personal information and designed to sideline an investigation into phone hacking.

Nor has the force’s new face stopped the problem of police brutality. Uncertain of how to deal with the public order challenges of middle class protest (environmental, or more recently student-based), the police have swung irrationally from a hands-off approach that only encouraged greater disorder to excessive force when that failed. The fear of Islamic terrorism has also led to police overreaction.

The killings of Jean Charles De Menezes (in a terrorism panic), Ian Tomlinson (at a G20 protest) and the vicious assault on Alfie Meadows at a student demonstration have all undermined respect for the police.

Political leaders have pointedly failed to engage with younger and less well-off groups in society, too. After more than a decade in power the Labour Party is a shell of its former self, but the coalition that replaced it is a bodged compromise whose most attractive radical figure, mould-breaking Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, managed to turn himself overnight into the most hated man in Britain by joining the government and voting for an increase in student fees (the very thing he had campaigned against). All in all, the political class are stiff, besuited, and incapable of talking in ordinary English, preferring a weird gabble of municipal-speak.

Lower down the scale teachers, parents and youth leaders have seen their authority undermined by a culture that disparages discipline, and sees “abuse” everywhere. Teachers’ unions have pointed out that changes in the law mean that a substantial minority are being investigated for allegations of abuse made by students at any time, meaning that they are reluctant to uphold discipline in the classroom. At the same time, teachers and social workers challenge parental discipline at every opportunity.

Perhaps most disturbingly British society has broken the link between hard work and success. Once the “workshop of the world” Britain has a shrinking manufacturing base (around ten percent of all employment). As the analyst Andrew Smithers pointed out, the City of London’s specialisation in financial intermediation took up the slack left by her shrinking industrial sector, but now that is looking like having all your eggs in the wrong basket.

For a decade or more booming markets and a credit-fuelled economy covered up the weaknesses. Trainers, clothes and electronic devices shipped in from China and paid for on credit kept Britons happy, while a growth in government jobs and the educational maintenance allowance to keep 16-19 year olds in school kept unemployment down.

The British system of rewards is far from being straightforward. How do you get rich in Britain in 2011?

  • Sir Paul Stephenson, the disgraced chief of the Metropolitan Police retired this July with full pension and benefits on a final salary of £250,000 – having been exposed for taking favours from journalists under investigation for hacking phones.
  • Susan Boyle grabbed the public’s affection on a TV talent show and made £10 million.
  • Beresfords Law firm skimmed £30 million from the Miners Industrial Injury Compensation scheme.
  • Geordie singer turned X-factor judge Cheryl Cole became Britain’s highest paid TV star.
  • Independent consultants raided the National Health Service’s budget of £4.3 billion to build a national database which still does not work.
  • City chiefs like Barclays Bob Diamond and HSBC’s Bob Duggan were awarded bonuses of £6.5 and £9 million last year, from funds boosted by the government’s £200 billion quantitative easing policy.

The link between work and reward is not easy to fathom. Young people dream unrealistically of success in the world of entertainment, as the most compelling example to them. The more astute know that law and the other professions have done better at securing their incomes – and for them higher education is the route.

Now the British system of rewards is threatened by the pressure on credit and on government spending. Nervous teenagers and parents see a much higher cost for higher education threatened (though the small print, surprisingly, is more generous than the headline fees). The consumer goods sector has been the one point of connection between younger people and wider society that worked – but recent financial difficulties make many fear that it will soon be out of reach.

Britain’s radical leaders have in recent times failed to speak to the material aspirations of the greater mass of people. Trade union wage claims are not the fighting point they once were. Left wingers are more likely to be hostile to consumerism than supportive. On the other side, conservatives have abandoned their narrative of hard work to earn well, thinking it too judgmental and mean-spirited.

Anxiety about the route to material betterment, along with a failure of political answers to that problem and a falling respect for authority have led to disorder. Earlier this year the middle classes rioted on student protests over rising fees. Now some amongst the inner city poor are rioting and looting, in search of a less deferred gratification.

The looters have taken advantage of the crisis of public authority to make their own short-cut to material success, but it is a self-defeating one. A looted Debenhams or Footlocker will think twice about re-stocking – or at least until they have improved security. Worse still, many family firms and communities have been wrecked by rioters.

Mark Duggan’s family needs a good answer to why he was shot, and why they had to learn that he had died through the media. Britain needs a less crazed answer to the question of how to meet people’s wants, and it needs a stronger restatement of the value of social solidarity.

James Heartfield’s latest book The Aborigines' Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1836-1909 is published by Columbia University Press, and Hurst Books in the UK.

Photo "Tottenham riots" by Nico Hogg