Broken Promises Amongst the Debris of London’s Riots

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
By Tom Wein

We were all shocked by the level of violence on London’s streets this week. I am proud to be a Londoner – and this is not the city I recognise. For many of us, the first question we have had to ask ourselves is: what is a safe route home? But once there, watching TV blazes and hearing real life sirens, the next question emerges: why? Why have the city’s youth suddenly decided to act as extras in our own production of A Clockwork Orange?

The first night of violence seemed explicable enough. A man is killed by the police. His distraught family seeks answers. Sloppy police communication allows rumours to spread. There are mutters of “execution” and “pigs” – and then shouts. Peaceful protest spills over, the police reaction intimidates, and once started these things are hard to stop. So far, so human – but that does not explain the wave of vandalism, arson, theft and violence that has touched most parts of the city since.

These riots are not revolution. Though they are a brief moment of power for the powerless, there is no organised movement. There are no banners and no manifestos, only inchoate anger. In a break with London’s rioting history, the participants are not predominantly black, or Muslim, or anything else. Principally, they are united by their age and social class: they are young, and by the standards of modern Britain, poor.

Yet, poverty alone does not seem sufficient as a cause. Unemployment is high, but it has been in the past, without results like these. They are not so indigent as to starve; these are not 18th century hunger riots, and much of the violence has been organised on rather pricey mobile phones.

Perhaps though, one may locate the cause of this violence in the age of the participants, and the specific experiences they have gone through. The generation on the streets last night has repeatedly been promised progress which never arrived, or turned out to be illusory.

Overall progress on poverty has been slow in reality, but more damaging still is the sense that promises have been broken. New Labour were always better at launching an initiative than administering it. The unique competence of New Labour’s communications machine meant that the media message frequently became untethered from the reality of poor, urban life in Britain, and the youth waited in vain for the promised benefits to arrive. 

The best and brightest from these communities were promised good jobs if they took on university debt. Many diligently racked up this debt, then returned to the checkout counter they left behind. Meanwhile, social mobility all but ended in Britain with the abolition of the grammar school system – but the rhetoric continued. A centralised state implicitly promised relief from the local tyrannies of pawn shop and payday loans, but in reality never rode to the rescue.

The fault does not lie with politicians alone, however. The youth has experienced only economic growth. The shock of finding out that economies go down as well as up is significant in itself. But this economic growth was attended by cheap credit. This allowed the poor to participate in the consumer society of the 1990s and 2000s. The sudden end to cheap credit in 2008 constituted an abrupt severance of the promise made by advertisers: that you too can have the sofa, stereo or hatchback of your dreams.

The final broken promise was that the elites of society, though not making much progress at the moment, really were trying to make things better. The steady, regular blows of scandal in the past few years have eroded this. MPs expenses, police corruption, tabloid phone hacking – each has junked the credibility of an arm of civil society, leaving few trusted champions.

These broken promises sit against a wider background, of course. The secularisation of British society has ended hellfire as a motivation for moral behaviour, and the class solidarity that sustained and policed many communities in the 1960s and 1970s was beaten into submission in the 1980s. We should not automatically conflate community spirit with desirable behaviour and individualism with bad behaviour. After all, that community spirit often stoked racism and roughly condemned the vulnerable, from single mothers to gays to Catholics. We do not want to go back to “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish”, but we also want some way of stiffening moral restraints.

So what is to be done? In the short term, trust the police. After sharp criticism of their perceived inaction on Monday night, the police appear to have reacted well on Tuesday, mustering a large force able to deter an opportunistic and depoliticized riot. Faced with one-off and unplanned disorder, there is no need to call on the army. Since they can likely only muster a couple of thousand at this notice, their value is surely outweighed by the poor publicity and risks of deploying hardened soldiers, trained for violence, into a tense situation. Moreover, the intelligence services need not get involved; their domestic role is to monitor direct and organized threats to the state; a night of looting does not constitute that.

In the medium term, trust the law as it stands. Judges and prosecutors will have to work overtime to process these cases, and some sentencing policy will have to be devised which squares the circle of full prisons and large numbers of arrests, while still providing the appropriate deterrents. But extraordinary measures are not required. The Home Secretary has already talked of legislating the police new powers. The situation calls for the contrary: the police must be monitored as closely as ever, for Stop and Search seems to be a major grievance of many of the rioters. Likewise, blocking Twitter and Facebook are the clumsy tools of repression; Britain need not use such technological scapegoating.

And in the long term? Money must be found, for jobs programmes, training, scholarships and careful policing. That is tricky enough, in times of austerity. Yet more than that, the culture of overpromising and underdelivering must also be addressed. Downing Street press secretaries must work with advertising standards groups and consumer watchdogs to change the culture of broken promises.

Research in Southern Afghanistan has repeatedly shown that the greatest grievance of the population is not war or poverty but broken promises; if those in such dreadful circumstances are minded to look beyond material suffering and instead focus on their relationship with the authorities, then in social-democratic Britain, this too can be the case. A cultural change will be required, to restore London’s shattered calm.


Tom Wein is a Project Leader with SCL Defence, a communications consultancy. He read War Studies at King’s College London, and writes a monthly column with Defence Dateline 2011. His most recent article, ‘The Narrative Strategy: A Politicized Strategy for Leaving Afghanistan’ was published in Infinity Journal earlier this year.


10 August 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis