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Recession at root of riots

Tottenham, Croydon, Brixton and Edmonton are not glamorous parts of London. The recent riots started with a real grievance, after police shot and killed a young man, Mark Duggan, and they then spread as far as Salford, in the north of England.

The riots were not really political; it was almost as if the youth of England wanted their own Arab Spring, and, using social media, whipped themselves up into a few days’ frenzy of rioting and looting.

The scenes were dispiriting to say the least and politicians have fallen over themselves in their speed to condemn and punish. Due process of law is being ignored, as courts remain open at the weekend and during the night, sending children to prison for six months (in one case for stealing a bottle of water) and the Home Secretary says the legal right to anonymity for under 18s is to be dropped.

The politicians want to be seen to be tough; meanwhile commentators are trying to understand why these riots happened. The right-wing journalist, Max Hastings, said it was all to do with one-parent families and a dependency on benefits. He wrote: “They are essentially wild beasts.” His fellow right-wingers talk about a sense of over-entitlement and David Cameroon, the prime minister, said: “pockets of our society are not just broken, but, frankly, sick.”

The left believe the riots are the result of terrible inequality and spending cuts; if you offer a generation plastic consumerism, rather than education and jobs, they will start rampaging through sports shops to steal the trainers they have been denied.

It is obviously impossible to find a single explanation for the violence and looting that began in one London borough on Saturday and then spread up to Birmingham and Salford, but history can tell us much about outbreaks of violence.

Economists are quoting a 2010 paper, written by Anjali Bohlken and Ernest Sergeant, on the Hindu-Muslim riots in India, in the 80s and 90s. It says, “just a 1% increase in the economic growth rate decreases the expected number of riots by over 5%.” What matters, they argue, is when people suffer abrupt drops in living standards – and that goes for Hackney as well as Athens.

Another paper, by economists Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth (collaborative bunch economists), is called “Austerity and Anarchy”. In it, they look at social unrest across Europe from 1919 to today and they find a clear link between “fiscal retrenchment and instability” which goes beyond the misery caused by recession.

We are currently in a recession and the government is going ahead with its planned programme of cuts, including to the police, so things are probably going to get worse before they improve.

Professor of History, Katrina Navickas, who writes on popular protest, says: “Historians wouldn’t even classify much of this week’s events as riots. In academic terms, a riot has a political programme or a common enemy.”

Alan Sitkin is a Labour councillor from Edmonton and he says: “I’m a lefty; I believe in redistribution and in the politics of the street. But to me that means Tiananmen Square; not some kids smashing HMV. This is bullshit.”

Nigel Phillips

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