England’s riots: If the UK were a fragile state…

Last week, rioting and looting gripped England. At a time when many people are feeling in one way or another bad about our country, it seemed salient (and perhaps inevitable) to ask, if the UK were a fragile state, how would we approach the events of last week, their aftermath and the future?

Building stability overseas

In July, the government brought out its Building Stability Overseas Strategy. Some of its basic premises have considerable resonance for our situation at home:

  • ‘The stability we are seeking to support can be characterised in terms of political systems which are representative and legitimate, capable of managing conflict and change peacefully…’
  • ‘This type of “structural stability”, which is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes.’
  • ‘The most peaceful political systems are accountable, giving everybody a voice, and trusted to manage and accommodate change.’
  • ‘Effective local politics and strong mechanisms which weave people into the fabric of decision-making – such as civil society, the media, the unions, and business associations – also have a crucial role to play. All sections of the population need to feel they are part of the warp and weft of society, including women, young people and different ethnic and religious groups.’
  • ‘In many fragile states the army or police can be the main face of the state for many citizens, and their behaviour can have a disproportionate impact on perceptions of legitimacy.’
  • ‘Jobs, economic opportunity and wealth creation are critical to stability. Lack of economic opportunity is cited by citizens as a cause of conflict, and is often the most significant reason why young people join gangs…’
  • ‘Only a healthy private sector and a well-functioning state can, in the long run, generate the growth and, particularly, the jobs needed for a sustainable exit from poverty, fragility and conflict.’
  • ‘Without growth and employment, it is impossible to meet the basic needs of the population, and people’s aspirations for a better life for themselves and their children.’
  • ‘While an inclusive and legitimate political system is a requisite for stability, confidence in the future comes when people see that their needs and expectations are being met on the ground.’

On the basis of this kind of analysis, I suggest, you would look at

  • social inclusion/exclusion and marginalisation
  • hope and confidence in the future – or their opposites
  • political institutions – both national and local
  • the condition of the economy and whether economic policies are creating opportunities
  • the capacity, resourcing, training and behaviour of the police
  • the space for civil society and for bodies such as business associations and trades unions to represent, articulate and influence

localised & intense violence

Partly because friends, colleagues and contacts in other countries have been asking whether the media reporting is hype or on the mark, it seems worth trying to summarise my own rough idea of what happened.

After localised violence in north/northeast London on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th August, violence erupted much more widely, afflicting at least 20 locations in the capital on the afternoon of Monday 8th and into the night. Next day it spread to other major cities in the Midlands and northwest, with three people killed. There have also been two deaths in London.

In all these instances the violence seems to have been very intense but also very localised. On Monday one centre of the violence was 3-4 minutes’ walk from where I live but I only knew about it because of television news, twitter and blogs, and the thwumping noise of the helicopter overhead. From what I can gather, that’s fairly typical. If you’re unlucky enough to be on a street that looters targeted, it was frightening; on the next block, you may have wondered what the fuss was about.

But the violence has affected everybody and not just because of living near it or knowing people who saw or suffered. It has had a particular quality that has got everybody thinking and wondering – about ourselves, about our communities, our values, politics and country.

There is not only a frightening edge to the violence but something horribly discomforting. It is not just a matter of people – sometimes whole families working together – taking stuff from stores. It’s not even just the nastiness of burning big stores or trashing local shops and pubs.

Some of the violence has been so personal, so mean – the deliberate running down of three men trying to guard their community, killing them, or the attack on a man who tried to extinguish a fire in a garbage bin, killing him too, or the theft from a young man who was already injured.

The fear people feel and express is not only physical. It is a moral, even a spiritual fear. There is a visible callousness among some rioters about anything and everything that most people ordinarily value. Everywhere you can hear and read puzzled people asking (or experts trying to answer), Just what is going on, what has gone wrong?

In my view it is the nature of the events rather than their scale that fully justifies the introspection that has begun. The question is, in what direction will it go?

the debate

A vibrant debate has started. Not surprisingly, numerous loud voices want a hard line, urging the government to use, inter alia,

  • Curfews (including a suggestion for a voluntary curfew, a concept whose effective content evades me),
  • Water cannon (Cameron says it’s available, senior police officers say it’s not useful in the circumstances they face),
  • Plastic and/or rubber bullets
  • And the army.

The government is also talking about removing benefit payments (e.g., for unemployment) from anybody convicted over the riots. In what seems like a purely spiteful variant, Wandsworth Council in London has announced, with Prime Ministerial support, that it intends to evict from social housing the father of a convicted rioter.

Meanwhile, the commentariat is out in force to analyse, explain and recommend. This is the necessary battle of ideas that we must have if we are to find a way out. It is important that it doesn’t just turn into a blame game, and especially not into a bout of political point scoring. At present, surfing around and picking up articles recommended by tweets and bloggers, it seems there is a lot of good analysis and insight around (including these five articles and this one).

Encouragingly, it is not only the liberal commentators who are urging politicians and citizens to look beyond criminality to the context of violent disorder. One of the best pieces of analysis and one of the bitterest dissections of the amorality of the upper class were both published in the conservative Telegraph.

There is one (and only one) aspect of the response to these sad events that is more heartening than the immediate recourse to reasoned debate, and that is the self-mobilisation of ordinary citizens in turning out to clean up their communities: #riotcleanup was the top London trend on Twitter during Tuesday 9th.

But as the opinion polls, the comment threads on lots of these articles, Twitter traffic and a combination of common sense and historical parallel all suggest, communities’ reactions can take more than one form. With that vicious and fearful shadow looming, it is not surprising that many people of impeccable social conscience look at the news footage and ponder imaginative modes of retribution.

Not surprising – not productive either.


The politicians returned from their holidays that the international financial crisis couldn’t tear them away from and started saying things.

  • The Prime Minister David Cameron started by saying it’s all just ‘criminality, pure and simple’,
  • and then shone his spotlight on a society that is not just ‘broken’, as he put it last year, but sick.
  • He has also criticised the police’s performance – reflecting a lot of public opinion on this.
  • And the police and politicians – especially including the PM – have started to dispute the degree to which the police response contributed to the riots escalating.
  • Home Secretary Theresa May would probably like to forget her comments last September, specifically addressing and dismissing the risk of public disorder if the police are subjected to spending cuts.
  • Meanwhile Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal-Democrat leader Nick Clegg may have mixed thoughts about his embarrassingly prescient reflection in last year’s election campaign  that a narrow Conservative win plus cuts would equal a wave of riots.

The ‘deeper problems’

Cameron’s starting point is that it’s ‘criminality, pure and simple’. You can understand the political need to say this, but taken at face value it’s a pretty gormless statement, taking one facet of a complex problem and saying that’s the whole thing.  It’s absolutely no guide at all as to what policies the government should adopt – and more than that, it’s no guide as to what policies it will adopt. Because, like everybody else, Cameron, as reflected in his House of Commons statement on Thursday 11th, knows there are ‘deeper problems.’

This is the fulcrum of the debate that has now started: what are those deeper problems? And then, of course, how to address them?

Cameron focuses on

  • “A major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong.”

So it is the parents’ fault for failing in the upbringing of the children and it is not to do with economic or social opportunity, exclusion or well-being:

  • “This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.”

The fact is, however, that culture also sits in a context. And it is that context to which David Cameron’s attention could be fruitfully directed by the government’s own strategy for building stability.

Another couple of quick contributions to his and the government’s thinking  – and the opposition’s – could come from the work done on how to help fragile states become more peaceful and prosperous.

start with questions

In the OECD/DAC guidance for working in fragile states, rule number one is to start with context. To the inevitable question about how to do that, the answer is to start with questions.

Questions need to be asked in a spirit of inquiry; that seems cloddishly obvious but when issues and debate heat up one casualty is the honest, open and straightforward question – too many questions get not asked but laid, like landmines. And answers need to be listened to very carefully, yet treated as provisional and incomplete.

The best of the opinion pieces that have been written often comment on the difficulty of getting the balance right in trying to understand what has been going on – the balance between all the different factors. A resilient and balanced understanding of it all will not come out of one head, one article, one brilliant writer: components will come but to find the proper balance they must be in dialogue with each other.

Thus, Beware the tendency to label. The power of generalisation sweeps all before it and gets in the way of good analysis and effective policy. Whatever one-dimensional that is attached to these events, it’s wrong.

some lines of inquiry

I will return in another post to some of the components of an open-minded dialogue of inquiry about the events in England last week (and by the way, one question to ask is, why only England – why not Wales or Scotland as well?).

Among the things that are pre-occupying me now are:

1. The economic context, not only in terms of narrowed opportunity but also two other links:

a) Pessimism about the future that was deliberately projected by the government last year to justify the cuts;

b) The power of bad example: “What links the City banker and the looter is the lack of restraint, the absence of boundaries to bad behaviour.” (Larry Elliott)

2. The longer-term social context in which significant numbers of people seem to have lost all sense of identity with community along with much sense of opportunity and agency.

3. The social psychology that could explain the astonishing lack of empathy shown by many rioters and looters.

4. The condition of local political institutions, after they have been hollowed out by successive governments over at least 30 years.

5. What actually happened and how numbers of people were mobilised – along with what it is that they thought they were being mobilised for.

More later…

9 thoughts on “England’s riots: If the UK were a fragile state…

  1. Good comparison of the UK’s internal situation and it’s approach towards developing states. Maybe you would like to see how DFID’s Drivers of Change could be part of the response to the riots.

  2. Thank-you for your thought provoking blog. In very realistic terms you have covered just about everything that has been happening over the past few months.
    To your comments, I would also add institutional structured integration into the educational system, based on international human rights and humanitarian law. This focus should start early, at primary, intermediate and collage levels.
    I would suggest that if governments actually followed protocol and committed themselves to following through their responsibilities in international law, just maybe the citizens would act in line with the obligations of the state. By this I mean that all states have obligations in customary international law to integrate into local legislation and ‘education’ the premises, the principles and the main rules of every international law that they have committed themselves to. Some of which are jus cogens, meaning that they are so important to mankind that no derogation whatsoever can be made from them.
    If the states actually integrated systems not only the rights of civilians but their responsibilities into schools, the civilians would be more likely to undertake bottom up grass roots organizations on a larger scale to protect the rights that they know they have. When civilians do not know commitments that their governments have made to the international community they do not understand what their rights and responsibilities are. Therefore they cannot push governments to implement what they are contractually bound to in international law.
    When civilians are frustrated by lack of understanding and lack of commitment from governments to basic rights, civil and political and social and economic, violence for some is the only way to express this frustration back onto the government.I would suggest that currently youth from all over the world is frustrated with inability to make change happen, when in reality the government is already responsible and obligated to to prevent social grievances through application of international law.
    Violence starts with frustration usually based on grievance, governments need to understand that within the current environment, citizens can see with their own eyes what is and is not happening. No longer blinded by segments of information but overload. The Government needs to catch up and integrate information at a much faster pace than has happened in the past. Otherwise youth as we have seen may act in a manner inconsistent with the already accepted rules and regulations of international customary law.

  3. Agree that context is all important – and requires deep and historical analysis of both society and politics. Responses must be respectful of what has happened and recognise the causes. 17 years after the cataclysmic, ultimately destructive and perhaps most acute riots of the last century, the people of Rwanda are still struggling to make sense of what happened. Despite the localised and relatively trivial events in the UK, the same reflection and working out of responses is required.

    Rwandans like Britons live in crowded conditions and have to coexist. Victims and perpetrators are side by side with few options to ignore each other. Slowly, as economic opportunities develop, their tolerance of each other improves as their interdependance and even cooperation in building their livelihoods moves forward. Divisions in society – through wealth, differences in opportunities, callous disregard by the wealthy for the lot of the poor – are at the root of divided societies – compounded by weak and ineffectual political and economic leadership.

    Those who have settled in Briton from ‘fragile’ states in which inequality is the norm – through caste, gender, ethnicity and much more – have demonstrated and articulated through the media over the past week perhaps the greatest understanding of the need for tolerance and support for the fabric of society – intact warp and weft with as few loose threads as possible – even in the face of possibly racially motivated killings of their number. This shows perhaps wherein lies the current backbone of our society, we ignore their example at our peril, born of wisdom and experience as it surely is.

  4. This was an excellent analysis. Whatever the deeper causes, the absence of police from our streets most of the time provides an opportunity, when things break down, for the normally law-abiding to join in riotous behaviour.
    My feeling on the politicians’ reaction was that they had lots to say to themselves but little of much value to the rest of us. The sound of our leaders winding themselves up with instant diagnoses, putting pressure on the law, lashing out at human rights etc, reveal a political elite lacking self-awareness, insight and much knowledge of life beyond their own circle.
    I suggest a Royal Commission might be useful to guide us to a rational, reasonable and measured response. Slow and thorough it may be, but that is what we seem to need, if we are to allow those with useful things to say to be heard above the clamour.

  5. Really interesting look at the riots. I’ve been thinking about something that may have contributed and would be interested in any thoughts on it. Most of the rioters grew up under the New Labour government. This was a government that made radical changes to many things – two things in particular I think may link to the riots:
    1. The changes to what is taught in school and how it is taught. The removal of literature and its replacement with ‘literacy,’ the import placed upon being a ‘productive’ piece of society trained to do jobs rather than learning for the joy of learning, the emphasis on learning to use the computer – not just as a tool – but as something critical to thinking, the sizing up of ones classmates through more exams, the idea of bad and good schools… Many things that will have impacted upon people, as children, in terms of an idea of themselves as part of society, their ability to empathise, their abilities to think critically and independently, their sense of self worth.
    2. The creation of a culture of distrust – distrust of teachers, doctors, nurses. The idea that without close monitoring and measurement of performance, without punishment for ‘poor’ performance, these key services would work to the lowest level they could get away with. In this way, the very core of our society was made into something unstable and not to be trusted.

  6. Hello,
    My name is Marie and I am a writer for criminaljusticedegree.net. I have been reading your blog for the past few weeks and I really enjoy it. Do you accept guest posts? I have an idea that would strike your interest. Please, feel free to email me. Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you soon

  7. Pingback: The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize | Dan Smith's blog

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