A year ago this evening I stood in the center of Britain’s crippled second city and watched as reinforcements arrived. I was desperate to get home, to start work on the article I’d been asked to write for Newsweek on the wave of riots engulfing England, but I couldn’t. The great city of Birmingham was paralyzed.
Trying to get back home from visiting the families of three Muslim men killed in the disorder the previous evening, I had been dropped off in a city center through which it had become impossible to pass by car. I went to my favorite coffee shop in the business district, which was open but empty. The offices around it had shut. It was 3 p.m. The lawyers and accountants had locked their plate-glass doors, doubled the security, discreetly tucked their laptops into the bottom of their gym bags, and set off for home.
Now they sat in their Jaguars, immobile on the city’s gridlocked roads. I stood for two hours by the side of a usually fluid highway waiting to be collected. The only thing that moved—with inch-painful slowness—was an endless convoy of police vans bringing reinforcements from Scotland.
In 43 years living in the centers of Britain’s two largest cities, I have never known anything like it. These were among the most extraordinary events seen in England since the Second World War. Without warning or much apparent reason, public order and the rule of law simply collapsed in our major cities.
People were confused and afraid, like they are in disaster movies and countries in the grip of revolution. They were leaving work early and stampeding back to their homes to lock themselves in because they felt like that would probably be safe. But they weren’t sure, and nobody could really make them feel so, because nobody really knew.
And this wasn’t a film or a banana republic; this was England—where status quo is the 11th commandment; some member-ship of the legislature is still hereditary; and the prime minister, like 18 of his predecessors and the future king, went to Eton. Insurrection does not happen here.
Nor were these events confined to Birmingham. They started in London, on Aug. 4, 2011, when the police stopped and shot to death a young black man, Mark Duggan, in a series of raids on organized drug gangs. Local protests in Tottenham that night turned into riots and looting. A painfully deprived, multiethnic area of North London, Tottenham had seen serious disorder before, most notoriously in 1985 when a police officer was hacked to death with a machete.
Over the next few nights last August, riots spread throughout London to other deprived districts such as Brixton, Hackney, East Ham, Lewisham, and Peckham. But also to parts of London quite unfamiliar with such disorder: to leafy outer suburbs such as Chingford, Enfield, Croydon, and Ealing, altogether more genteel places, with good schools, nice shops, big houses, and high rates of employment. All had parts of their commercial centers burned, smashed, and looted.
Across the rest of the country, city--center shops and retail parks closed in the midafternoon in anticipation of rioting, the location of which it was impossible to predict because it made no apparent sense. As well as in London and Birmingham, there was arson, violence, and looting in Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham, Leicester, Leeds, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Rochdale, Sefton, Wirral, and places beyond. That is most of urban Britain.
People were generally safe in their houses, but they didn’t feel so. They were scared as they have never previously been in peacetime. This was an extraordinary convulsion, a dreadful rupture in the social fabric of England.
So what happened next?
Well, it just stopped. After nearly a week of national rioting, the teenage looters ( 53 percent of those so far convicted were age 20 or under; less than 5 percent were 40 or over) returned to hanging round the street corners and the shopping malls they’d just been smashing up. Everything went back to how it was. Lampedusa would have been proud.
And how has Britain responded in the year since we inched our eyes over the precipice and saw chaos? What sense did we make of it, and what did we do?
Well, nothing really. Hardly anyone has mentioned it since, or given it much thought. Partly, that is the genius of the human spirit: the indefatigable imperative for things to spring back into shape and go back to how they were, whatever has happened. But it is also a symptom of the complacency in which the least socially mobile Western democracy takes social order for granted even while many of its poorer citizens obviously have too little stake in its preservation.
In the immediate aftermath of the disturbances, the airwaves were thick with the wisdom of politicians, just as the burnt-out streets were thronged with them jostling to be photographed wearing their most serious faces. (A campaigning politician myself at the time, I was as guilty of this as the rest).
On Aug. 11, Parliament was recalled—a measure normally reserved for wartime—and four days later Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in which he told his rural constituents: “These riots were not about race ... government cuts ... [or] poverty ... No, this was about behavior: people showing indifference to right and wrong; people with a twisted moral code; people with a complete absence of self-restraint.”
At first he told his affluent Oxfordshire electors that “in large parts of the country this was just pure criminality,” but then he went on to talk of a “slow-motion moral collapse” in which the family and its values had broken down. The real problem, Cameron said, was the sponsorship by “the state and its agencies” of “irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.”
Predictable stuff from a right-wing, Conservative prime min-ister, but on this occasion he was broadly in tune with the national mood. An online petition to stop the welfare payments of anyone convicted in connection with the riots got so many signatures (more than 100,000 in the first few hours) that it caused the U.K. government website to crash.
Notwithstanding a tone that recognized that something exceptional had occurred, Cameron then did one of the two standard things that governments do after riots: he set up a panel of inquiry. (The other option is to deny that anything ever happened, but that wasn’t possible on this occasion.)
The Riots, Communities, and Victims Panel was chaired by a civil servant, -Darra Singh, abetted by three white -middle-class worthies. It reported in March 2012, reaching conclusions as innocuous as the riots were dramatic: poor parenting, lack of support for families, weak communities, lack of confidence in the police, materialism. And so on.
The London School of Economics, by contrast, did a major piece of primary research, Reading the Riots, involving several hundred interviews with riot participants and analysis of 1.3 million words of first-person accounts and 2.5 million riot-related tweets. The project leader, Prof. Tim Newburn, told me that “quite clearly there were many factors underpinning the riots, from anger at the police to the rampant criminal consumerism so visible in the widespread looting. Most fundamentally, Reading the Riots identified a segment of alienated youth who felt marginalized and had little sense of hope for the future. It was this that was common to all the areas in which the riots occurred.”
Newburn’s Reading the Riots has been widely praised, but Birmingham Labour M.P., Khalid Mahmood, is not impressed with Singh’s official government report. Mahmood’s deprived, multiethnic constituency saw rioting not just last year but on many previous occasions. He was at the center of the community response in areas like Birmingham’s Lozells, which has erupted at all previous times of national disturbance but which remained peaceful in 2011.
Mahmood sees the Singh report as somewhere between anemic and empty. “All he did was blame the families,” says the M.P. “Single-parent families and truanting. Big news. More needs to be done? Amazing. A child could have told them that. But, as usual, they haven’t actually done anything.”
In fact, “they” did do one thing, responding to the riots in one particular way that was unprecedentedly concerted and extreme. Prison sentences totaling more than 1,800 years have so far been handed down to the 1,292 people -convicted in connection with last year’s disturbances. The average custodial sentence of 16.8 months is more than four times the normal penalty in such cases. At the time, courts sat all night, prosecutors volunteered for -extra duties, and a whole parallel fast-track system was set up to mete out much more severe punishment than usual much more quickly than usual.
Poster-boy sentences of unique ferocity delighted Britain’s bloodthirsty news-papers almost as greatly as court leniency routinely riles them. Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw were each sentenced to four years in prison for posting Facebook messages inciting -riots in their respective hometowns, even though no such riots occurred and they committed no other offense. The sentences were upheld on appeal.
Amed Pelle, 18, received a 33-month sentence for posting similarly ineffectual Facebook messages. Anderson Fernandes, 22, got 16 months for stealing ice cream. Nicholas Robinson, 23, an engineering student whose previous good character was acknowledged by the judge, got six months for the opportunistic theft of a £3.50 case of bottled water. In this latter case, as in all the others, the context of serious public disorder was cited as an aggravating feature.
For Andrew Neilson, campaigns director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, “Some of these sentences are disproportionate and devalue our response to serious crimes. Proportionality is a key principle of criminal justice.”
But this was the judiciary sending an explicit message in unapologetic tones: these disorders were experienced—-whether or not they were intended as such—as an assault on the state. And though the riots were collective convulsions, they were made up of individual actions. Thus if convicted of even the most minor riot-related crime, you will be sentenced for the whole communal paroxysm.
As Neilson notes, “the courts placed great store on the deterrent effect of such sentences, but crime is seldom the product of a rational choice. The fear of getting caught is more likely to deter than the length of the sentence.”
Deterrence wasn’t actually the point, though. This was the State, in stentorian tones and the most terrible terms, pronouncing its reply to an attack on its existence.
Yet beyond this, the state has done nothing. The formal inquest into Mark Duggan’s death is not scheduled to begin until January 2013. In the meantime the Independent Police Complaints Commission is still compiling its report. The firearms officers involved ( 31 of them surrounded the taxi in which Mark Duggan was riding) have so far refused to give evidence.
Newburn says: “Little has been done since the riots to address the problems facing our poorest communities and most vulnerable, and troublesome, young people. Reviews of police tactics have also been promised, though little seems to have occurred. Most surprising for a government that made great play of protecting victims, many of those most affected by the riots have never received any compensation or financial support to get their lives back on track.”
In Birmingham, where three men died, the City Council’s full report into what happened wasn’t published until last week. Its interim report was quickly withdrawn earlier in the year.
Last month the eight men charged with the murder of Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali, and Abdul Musavir during last year’s events were all acquitted.
And Rab Nawaz, who owns the Electro Centre store on Birmingham’s Soho Road, still hasn’t been able to fix the damage to his shop. “There was supposed to be a scheme where we got compensation,” he says. “We filled in the forms, but they refused us. I’ve no idea why.” A year later, you can still see the twisted metal where the rioters smashed through. “I think we’re finally about to get some insurance money,” Nawaz confides, “but we haven’t seen anything yet,”
Left and right always read what they want into riots. For the right, it is society betrayed by a tiny group of morally derelict citizens; for the left, the state is the delinquent, the rioters its victims and even, for some, its ultimate nemesis.
Most people, though, don’t know what left and right mean anymore. They live in an age after God, in which the concept of class has disappeared from politics, and the nation-state looks ridiculous to the intelligentsia. Is it surprising, in which case, that the social glue sticks less well than it did; that allegiance to the tribe is less strong than it was; that the social order seems a much more random settlement than an ideal one? No, there will be riots in Britain again, perhaps more like last year’s than like previous ones, because that is the kind of society we have become.
What is really remarkable is not that this happened but how dysfunctionally and ineffectually the British establishment reacted: initially with a howl of anguish, then a brutal sideswipe, followed by a yearlong master class in heedless indifference and a silent anniversary obliterated by the Olympics. Perhaps Lampedusa would not have been so proud after all. Because if you really do want things to stay the same, then things really do have to change. However painful that may be.
Siôn Simon is a former member of Parliament and minister in the previous U.K. government.