Riots Underscore Why Britain is "Sick"

In response to the riots that erupted in the UK last week, Prime Minister David Cameron said that pockets of British society are “frankly sick” (video below). While members of the Labour opposition have blamed the riots on the impact of the Coalition’s budget cuts, Cameron argues that it is not poverty, but poor parenting, that is responsible for the violence, looting, and destruction.

However, the causes of this “sickness,” which has been left undiagnosed and untreated for too long, are far more complex.  

Absent of a political agenda, placards, and slogans, the riots have been widely condemned as mindless and opportunistic. The horrific actions of rioters should not be excused and cannot be justified, but dismissing their motivations in this way threatens to mask the real political problems that have turned thousands of young people into criminals. 

The austerity measures imposed to tackle the UK’s budget deficit are the most important cause of the riots, which has already been raised on PolicyMic. This year, Haringey council made a 75% cut to youth services, meaning that community activities and after-school clubs have all but disappeared. What’s more, the removal of Education Maintenance Allowance has impacted the ability of students from low-income families to complete high school, and the stagnant economy has contributed to high unemployment. This leaves a huge number of disaffected youths on the streets with nothing to do — a situation which Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy warned would lead to violence “akin to inner-city America.”   

The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by the police has been identified as the spark that ignited the riots in Tottenham. But the killing of Duggan was more than just a spark. Hostility towards the police in disadvantaged, ethnically diverse communities was one of the main messages of the disorder in Haringey, Hackney, and Lambeth. Black men are eight times more likely than white men to be stopped and searched, but anti-police sentiments have been expressed by black, white, and Asian youths who feel mistreated and unfairly targeted by the police. The search for answers has focused on economic deprivation and the erosion of core values, but “F**k the feds” and “Kill the police” have been the only audible slogans to emerge from the chaos.

Looting became the hallmark of the disorder as it spread more widely, and this, too, is indicative of serious problems in British society. The disadvantaged are locked out of consumer culture, but not immunized against the desires it creates. Although the desire for new shoes or a flat-screen TV does not justify stealing them, it demonstrates the impact of extreme wealth disparity and appears to be the inevitable result of being “dispossessed in a country rich with possession.”

But, it is the government’s own inaction that made the violence and looting inevitable and uncontrollable. The spread of the disorder has been blamed on opportunism, but it is precisely the lack of decisive action to quell the riots that presented the opportunity. Under fire for their handling of the G20 protests in 2009 and the student tuition fee protests last year, the police are afraid to confront disorder. Furthermore, the emergency Cobra meeting, held three days after the start of the rioting, was simply too slow to respond and support the police with instruction and legal backing. 

Although the young people involved in the riots did not march on Whitehall in protest, their actions speak loudly of their hopelessness. The rioters looted and attacked their own neighborhoods because they cannot even imagine themselves on the other side of the barricade, with their own homes, businesses, cars, and property to protect. They engaged in “pure criminality” because they felt they had nothing to lose by doing so; and that is a poignant political and social issue, even without placards and slogans.

The only way to solve these problems is to tackle wealth inequality through targeted investment to create jobs, fund education, and maintain youth services in deprived areas. The police budget needs to be protected rather than cut, and more efforts are needed to improve community policing. In addition, rioters and looters should be sentenced with community service to aid the victims of their senseless criminality and address these young people’s lack of social responsibility.

But, with the government intent on maintaining cuts to essential services while proposing a tax break for the wealthy, it is doubtful whether the man who pledged to mend “broken” Britain will be able to cure “sick” Britain.   

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons