By Leif Jerram
As we watch riots tear through the centres of British cities, many people have (instinctively and understandably) tried to see something of profound importance in them. For Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, they show why the budget for his police force should not be cut. For those on the left, the riots have been an essay in the perils of vacuous consumerism on the one hand, and shameless abandonment of the poor by the state on the other. And for our Conservative prime minister, it is confirmation that parts of our society are sick and evil. For David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (the epicentre of the riots), we must tackle the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ culture of gang pride and instant gratification.
But as a historian there is a parallel issue we need to consider. Consider this take from the Manchester City News about a new Conservative government struggling to come to terms with regular gang violence:
Brutality is still in the ascent and day after day the shameful and sickening catalogue runs on. No morning comes now without its black calendar of disgusting crime. Neither the sentences of justice, such as they are, nor the protests of the press, seem to be of the slightest avail… [W]e are only expressing the feeling which is shared by all decent persons, whether rich or poor, when we say that this is condition of things altogether unendurable by a civilised people. (Cited in Andrew Davies, The Gangs of Manchester (Preston, 2008), 74-5.)
The next month, the new Conservative government set up an inquiry into the law on assault. Disraeli was the Tory PM, 1874 the year.
People have been vociferously complaining about an alienated or feral or disconnected or criminal or impoverished or hopeless urban underclass (especially youth) since they became an object of study and classification in the late 18th/early 19th centuries – with the emergence of modern cities themselves. And periodically, ‘stuff’ happens involving this ‘class’ of people. As we rush to explain this wave of violence, who remembers now the all-absorbing press coverage and social concern about gang cultures in Manchester and Glasgow between the wars? Or the anti-Semitic riots of post-World War Two Liverpool? The flick-knife violence around mods and rockers in British seaside towns in 1964? The football violence of the 1900s, or the 60s, 70s and 80s? The swiftly rising crime and drug addiction of the pre-Thatcherite ‘golden age’? By forgetting our history, we have paralysed ourselves in expensive (emotionally and financially) frustration, on both right and left.
There is a terrifying alternative – terrifying to academics, journalists, and politicians alike. Maybe history shows us that these riots, horrible as they are (and particularly in light of the deaths of three young men in Birmingham) mean nothing at all? Maybe they’re just one of those random things that happens in all sorts of societies from time to time? Maybe there is no story of decline here? Sometimes rich bankers go bonkers and wreck loads of stuff for reasons they themselves don’t understand; sometimes 30 year old classroom assistants do it too. Of course it’s bad that fathers abandon their kids – but it’s bad because it’s bad, not because it leads to riots. It’s always been bad, riots or not. People sometimes just do weird stuff they can’t really explain – sometimes, there isn’t an over-arching narrative. Society, like Celine Dion’s heart, goes on.
Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome. After all, the economic harm caused by these rioters pales into insignificance compared to the economic harm caused by bankers – but we don’t spend much time trying to understand their moral alienation (for those on the left), or identifying them on the front pages of newspapers and locking them up (for those on the right). And which has rendered more people homeless and destroyed more small businesses: the banking crisis, or the riots? Sometimes in history weird stuff happens – universes are created, planking takes off as a craze, banks collapse, Steve Jobs invents the Mac. At each point, we should be ready to ask ourselves whether we’re handling a whacky anomaly or not.
The nature of the problem is infinitely complicated – not just in this disorder, but in all of the moments of our collective urban lives – by the utter randomness of city spaces. Real encounters with real people make a mockery of journalistic scene setting or blame-making, academic investigation, or governmental strategies. Louise of Louise’s Hair by the bus depot in Wolverhampton came out of her shop and shouted at the 200 or so rioters to leave her alone – and they did. Louise is black, a woman, speaks with a mixture of a West Indian and Wolverhampton accent. According to most of the hackneyed theories we have, she shouldn’t be powerful, in control, confrontational, dynamic, or even a businesswoman at all. Yet she drew a line in the sand and confronted 200 young men with sticks and rocks, and they just left her, and her shop, alone.
I say this not to heroise Louise, but to randomise her. The randomness of Louise is clear – we couldn’t set up a programme to produce Louises; we couldn’t train them; we couldn’t station them around a town if we could. We’ve got no idea whether Louise is a good or bad person in other areas of her life. We can’t define why Louise was successful in getting the rioters to move on, when the police could not. It was a random person in a random moment exercising random effects. So why, then, should we expect to be able to understand the rioters? Let’s fix what we’re sure we understand. Let’s allow a bit of randomness into the world too though, and stop pretending we can understand everything. History shows us we can’t do that even in retrospect. Sometimes, bad things happen. And sometimes good things too. Is Britain Broken? I don’t think so. If we go looking for friendliness and good behaviour, we’ll relatively easily find it, but we give it almost no thought. ‘Years of Calm on Poor Estate’ has yet to appear on the front page of any newspaper, though it would describe most poor parts of Britain.
Leif Jerram was born in Woolwich in south-east London in 1971, and lived there until he went to study history at university. After having lived in San Diego, Bremen, Munich and Paris, he settled in Manchester to do his PhD – the first industrial city. There he has remained, barring a brief stint as a fellow at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He is currently a lecturer in urban history in the School of Arts at Manchester University, as well as being involved in community politics and activism. He has published widely in the field of cultural and urban history, including most recently Streetlife: How Cities Made Modern Europe.