More than 30 years ago, The Clash depicted the capital as a warzone, as a city fraying at the seams, in their anthemic London Calling. “London calling to the faraway towns,” Joe Strummer declared in the song’s opening bars, “Now war is declared and battle come down.” Strummer’s faithless view of London – one that now finds its echo in a new century, among a new generation – underscores the fact that civil unrest and problems of social cohesion are nothing new in the city. Indeed, London has always been ‘hot’, the friction between the powerful and the powerless prone to flare up in unexpected ways.
To understand the events of last week, when groups of marauding youths defied police to carry out widespread looting – Tottenham in the north; Ealing in the west; Hackney in the east; Clapham in the south – some commentators have referenced the riots that occurred in Brixton and Broadwater Farm in 1985, when black communities bucked against police intimidation.
But, according to Clive Bloom, author of Violent London: 2000 Years Of Riots, Rebels And Revolts, any analogy between bygone race riots and the events of last week is spurious. “There are two types of riots,” Bloom says. “The first is when people feel they can’t get justice – they see the system as corrupt and they riot to demonstrate against it. The other type is what we’ve seen in London and in other cities around the UK.
“These recent riots have been started by young men who are very poor, who have no place, no property, no allegiance but to their gangs. They see things they want but can’t afford. Instead of buying them, they take them.”
Bloom claims the most instructive forerunners to last week’s riots took place long before 1985 and long before Strummer began cataloguing society’s ills.
“You have to go further back, to the 18th century, to that era of intense economic deprivation,” he says. “Back then, in the 1700s, people were either very rich or very poor and if you fell off that ledge you just vanished. Out in those areas of Spitalfields, the East End, Holborn and Covent Garden – they were very impoverished.
“You’d have vast groups of unattached young men who would go on rampages through the streets and they’d escalate quite quickly. They’d explode just like they have now. The men would be loaded up with drink and they’d go marching down the road with their cudgels, setting fire to buildings and beating people up. It was essentially about taking out their frustrations, about not having what everyone else had.”
In the wake of the riots, which spread to other cities around the UK, including Manchester and Birmingham, the search for an explanation has begun in earnest.
Perhaps predictably, opinion has divided sharply into two camps. Some condemn the rioting as straightforward criminal opportunism, as thugs taking advantage of a breakdown in law and order to loot, intimidate and steal. On the other hand, many commentators have pointed to the neglect of London’s urban communities, where impoverished conditions have incubated a generation with no stake in society and little hope for the future.
“These areas that are deprived – in Tottenham, Hackney, parts of Islington – have been kept deprived. They’ve never been fed the housing and the infrastructure that everyone else got,” Bloom says. “There is this underclass who feel they don’t belong, who don’t care about the rest of society, and that comes as a real shock to people.”
But Bloom’s acknowledgement of the socio-economic factors at work does not implicitly shift the burden of responsibility from the looters on to society in general; the context of poverty, as grinding and unavoidable as it may be, does not transform smash-and-grab into legitimate protest.
“The people doing it have no agenda. They’re just having a good time – it’s a rush of adrenalin,” Bloom says. “I think the excitement factor is very important in this. They’re young men – to go into a shop and take the trainers they can’t afford, knowing that no one can stop them, must make
them feel powerful. And power is what they don’t have.”
Even if the teenage looters bear ultimate responsibility for their actions – and, rightly, hundreds of them will be held criminally liable – the events of the past week have illuminated failures elsewhere: the failure of law and order to anticipate and prevent the riots; the failure of parents and wider communities to engage their young and keep them on the straight-and-narrow; the failure of government to prevent swathes of urban London toppling into the abyss.
“I think there’s a certain breakdown in society, where these kids now turn to their peers for approval rather than to their elders. I don’t think it’s race-relations that are the problem as much as age-relations, and that won’t be solved for a very long time,” Bloom says.
“The social structures have imploded and they’ve imploded all over the rest of us. That’s always been the case in London – the very rich live right next to the very poor. London has always been ghettoised like that and one community just ignores the other.
“What should happen – they need to pump resources and infrastructure into these areas. They won’t do it; you can read the script already. But unless they break up these gangs, and they thought they did it 30 years ago, nothing changes.”