The week in politics: England goes post-apocalyptic

Riots across England remain inexplicable to most commentators
Riots across England remain inexplicable to most commentators.

We didn't see the collapse of civilisation, but we did watch the trailer.

By Ian Dunt

It was about 21:00 Monday evening when we got scared. Before that point it was interesting, fascinating even, but within the boundaries of what we'd experienced before. But as the sun set on Monday night it turned into something else entirely. It was like a trailer for the end of civilisation. We were nowhere close to it, of course, but we did see the trailer. We made jokes on Twitter but the truth is that at about 21:00 on Monday night everyone felt an icy chill, we felt the hidden reality of life: that at any moment you're only ever a bad week away from being beaten to death on the street. Chaos and you are separated only by a few laws and the locks on your door.

Events began when the family of Mark Duggan congregated for a dignified protest in Tottenham, north London, on Saturday night. Duggan had been shot by police a few days earlier. Early reports that there had been an exchange of gunfire proved false. In fact, he was shot twice by police, although he did have a gun. The police are perfectly entitled to fire if they feel under threat and the fact he was carrying a weapon puts us well within that category. But as usual, the killing was immediately followed by loyal journalists printing nonsense from police sources about Duggan shooting first. The police still haven't grasped that central tenant of the cautionary tales we tell children: if you cry wolf too many times the public might just go and decide you can't be trusted. That was the conclusion the black community of Tottenham came to on Saturday night.

Saturday's protest turned into a riot and saw arson and disorder on a scale that dwarfed anything cooked up by students or anarchists in recent months. By Sunday night Tottenham was secure, but the disorder had spread outwards, like ripples in water. Home secretary Theresa May cancelled her holiday. Already the violence had lost any political narrative. It was emotional, intuitive, aggressive and fuelled by an impenetrable momentum.

The disorder started early on Monday afternoon, apparently because some policemen had tried to stop and search some kids in Hackney. It could have been anything but it was certainly going to be something. Soon enough it had spread to Clapham, Croydon, Peckham, Ealing, Enfield, Camden and then, ominously, Birmingham, as the ripples continued to spread outwards beyond London. It was an epidemic, a virus. Very quickly, even people of impeccable liberal credentials were using language reserved for the most reactionary. The rioters were evil scum. We needed the army.

Boris Johnson and David Cameron quit their holidays and returned home, but a few hours too late. When Boris toured the capital the next day he was heckled, booed and taunted by the public. Cameron made a statement outside Downing Street that most commentators treated as insufficient. May had made it back from holiday earlier, but observers were unconvinced by her performance. The police, who had been brutally overstretched the night before, had their numbers boosted by 10,000. Ministers dialled down the calls for an army presence, the use of rubber bullets or water cannons.

In London the boost in police numbers seemed to have worked, or at least that served as a reassuring explanation. In truth, what had been inexplicable on Monday was still inexplicable by its absence on Tuesday. Even on Friday, by which time every commentator, politician and bloke down the pub had had their say, we were still dimply aware that no-one had truly understood what had happened.

Unfortunately, with all the police in London and the ripples spreading outwards, other English cities fell to the violence, most notably Manchester and Salford. In London, the victory held its own inevitable defeat. One of the great bustling cities of the world had been reduced to silence, workers leaving early to get home, an endless army of police on the street, the vigour and charm of the capital reduced to a soviet graveyard.

Elsewhere the price was higher. The Muslim community, like the Sikh and Turkish community, rallied to defend their neighbourhood in way which impressed observers. In fact, you could even say that this week was the greatest PR victory for the Asian community in the UK since September 11th. Evidently this is what it takes to make it happen.

Three of those Asian men - Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali and Abdul Masavir – were standing guard outside a petrol station in Birmingham when a car drove into them, killing all three. What ifs are a difficult and contradictory business, but it’s quite possible that Jahan's father, Tariq, singlehandedly prevented the disorder turning racial, after he convinced his community not to march, but to let the police get on with their investigation. His restrained, eloquent attitude and practicality marked him out as a uniquely British figure sacrificing his anger for the sake of those about him. In a dark period for Britain, it was proof there are diamonds in the rough.

By Thursday, parliament's recess was temporarily cancelled so MPs could debate the issues. Cameron struck an increasingly right-wing tone, going some way toward allowing the army to hit the streets if needed, authorising water cannons and alluding to a whole raft of new laws about face-covering and that sort of thing. He also slapped away any mention of inequality as an explanation, reply on a potentially contradictory mixture of 'this is just about criminality' and 'this is all about responsibility'. Ed Miliband tested the water of a more radical assessment, but without the gusto to go the full hog - not yet at least. Politicians are still trying to figure out the public reaction, which doesn’t want softness but understands that something must be horrible wrong with the country.

The debate was as spectacularly misconceived a parliamentary moment as you will find this year. After dealing expertly with the phone-hacking affair, MPs showed themselves to be even more badly informed than the media 'experts' hauled onto TV stations to demonstrate their inability to grasp events. All anyone of us really knows is that no-one really understands what happened. Our best hope now is that will change in the months to come.


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