One year on: assessing the state of the nation

Saturday 20 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Frobisher Auditorium 2

In the aftermath of widespread rioting in English cities in August 2011, responses revealed predictable fault lines among the commentariat. The tabloids wrote of feral criminality, while conservative voices suggested the legacy of the permissive Sixties explained why England was going to hell in a handcart. More radical commentators like Darra Singh, who chaired an independent inquiry, turned to familiar ‘social factors’ such as unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people. Some even saw looting as a form of protest against ‘brutal cuts’ and austerity measures. A Guardian/LSE study, Reading The Riots, concluded that the rioters were ‘rebels with a cause’, with 86 per cent of the 270 rioters interviewed claiming the violence was caused by poverty, 85 per cent policing, and 80 per cent government policies.

On closer inspection, however, the competing explanations shared certain common themes, indicting the contemporary British way of life and calling for greater state intervention to keep it in check. David Cameron claimed the violence was due to bad parenting and ‘Broken Britain’. Ed Miliband rebranded violent rioting as another expression of a ‘me first’ culture driven by hyper-consumerism. The government’s panel report slammed a wider culture of ‘materialism’, implying aggressive brand advertising has corrupted impressionable youth. ‘Britain’s riots are the consequence of a greedy society’, asserted the Guardian‘s Seumas Milne, while Peter Oborne of the Telegraph claimed the rioters were ‘just following the example set by senior and respected figures in society’. Naturally, the law‘n’order lobby argued people need stricter social and moral codes, and endorsed the ‘exemplary’ punishments handed out (six months in jail for stealing chewing gum; four years for trying unsuccessfully to start a riot through Facebook). Elsewhere, more liberal-leaning commentators called instead for parenting classes, family-therapy centres, youth clubs and so on. But might such headline-grabbing policy initiatives, whether punitive or more therapeutic, distract us from explaining what really happened and why?

How do we account for the seeming demise of social solidarity? One striking feature of the riots was the loss of the authority of adults – parents, teachers, neighbours – over younger generations. Is it really just a ‘me first’ attitude that motivates people to destroy their corner shop or burn down their neighbour’s home? Or might we ask what fuelled the looters’ inflated sense of entitlement and grievance? Might some responses to the riots have continued to foster an assertive victimhood? Might the normalisation of welfare dependency – such that people regard claiming benefits not as a temporary phase but as a way of life – be partly to blame? Might widespread evasion of these bigger issues represent a greater threat to society than the damage caused by the rioters themselves?

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Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

David Lammy MP
Labour MP for Tottenham; author, Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots

Zoe Williams
columnist, Guardian; author, What Not to Expect When You're Expecting

Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

Produced by
Neil Davenport sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist
Peter Smith director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development
Recommended readings
David Lammy MP says absent fathers 'key cause of knife crime

A London MP has suggested that absent fathers are a key cause of knife crime.

BBC News, 3 October 2012

Reading the Riots

Investigating England's summer of disorder

Guardian, 2012

Like a bad dream

Unrest that seemed epoch-making a year ago has changed little. That is surprising—and worrying

Economist, 4 August 2012

Riot City: protest and rebellion in the capital

Since 2000, London has seen unprecedented levels of unrest. Its streets have become the battleground for a host of new demands and new ideological standpoints; its occupants, protesters and authority alike, have had to invent new tactics to cope with the pressure of street politics and advances in social media.

Clive Bloom, Palgrave Macmillan, 26 July 2012

The rioters weren’t poor automatons

Those who have concluded that the August rioters were simply reacting to deprivation are deluding themselves.

Neil Davenport, spiked, 21 December 2011

Rioting in England: was it just a bad dream?

The elite’s claim that this was just another facet of the ‘culture of greed’ shows how incapable they are of addressing urban implosion.

Frank Furedi,, 15 August 2011

The UK riots: the psychology of looting

The shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters

Zoe Williams, Guardian, 9 August 2011

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