Back in 1972, a landmark book – “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” – took a long hard look at the confrontations between mods and rockers in the early ’60’s.
Whilst nowhere near as universal or as destructive as this week’s events, they nonetheless scared the decent law-abiding Daily Express populace – and in an eerie pre-echo of recent violence, they gave rise to all manner of ludicrous theorising about the nature of the action and the motivation of those taking part.
Believing what one wants to hear
One meme that quickly entered popular consciousness was a perpetrator arrested, brought before the courts and required to pay a fine. As myth had it, this individual laughingly pulled out a cheque book and offered to pay then and there.
Sorted: the complacent majority instantly knew that all these bad youths were really affluent types who had no respect at all for law and order.
Less publicised was the denouement of this incident: the revelation that the guy was making it up. He didn’t have the wherewithal to write down his punishment with one swift flourish of the pen: and even if he had, he was quite atypical of the majority of those taking part.
The Middle class rioter
Flash forward to today, and already the exceptions are hitting the headlines. We read about teaching assistants, law students and ballerinas involved in the riots precisely BECAUSE they are the exception.
If it were indeed the case that a significant proportion of Monday’s rioting was carried out by the militant wing of the Bolshoi, i would be both flabbergasted and… impressed beyond words.
The majority of those involved were a mix of the usual suspects – from criminal to criminally bored: they were rioting for the usual reasons – sometimes sheer greed, occasionally some degree of necessity, most often, i guess, because everyone else was at it and for a brief interlude, the belief arose that behaviour that was exciting and fun and possibly gainful was beyond punishment.
Still, i thoroughly expect to be taunted at future dinner parties with the assertion of certain knowledge that 99% of the rioters had no need whatsoever to be out there rioting…were, in fact, no more than the edgier iresponsible elements of the middle classes out slumming it for the night.
Riots are always with us
There is a second way in which we are already treating the exceptional as the norm. These riots were exceptional. They are far from unique: Britain has seen many instances of rioting over the years – but usually separated by a decade or two between serious outbreaks.
Do i really think we are on the verge of an age of riots unless, praise be to Cameron, we instantly implement emergency laws to stop it?
One of two things seems likely to be true after this week. Either August 2011 will turn out to be highly exceptional: another of those once in a couple of decades outbreaks, which tell us very little about the state of youth in modern Britain.
Or it will be but the first of a long-running wave of riots, springing up whenever, wherever policing drops below some critical threshold for preventing them.
In the first case, i really don’t wish to see any special measures being put in place: don’t much see the point of most of the special measures now in the pipeline, beyond clamping down on other more legitimate forms of protest, behind a smokescreen of “doing something”.
In the second, kneejerk reaction now seems about as useful as sitting on the sea shore and ordering the waves to retreat. If some sections of UK society are SO disaffected that they will now riot at the drop of a hat and continue to do so regardless, they won’t be stopped by the application of half a dozen sticking plaster measures hastily dreamt up and as hastily announced to parliament two days later.
The one thing i suspect is not exceptional about this week’s events is the fact they took place in august. Long summer days, moderate temperatures, and loads of young people with no school commitment to keep them even partially pre-occupied has always been a contributor to riot.
Which suggests the authorities should look not to policing tonight or tomorrow night…but be watching very closely the long range weather forecasts for August Bank Holiday.