Depraved or deprived? Britain split on riot causes

12th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron says the riots which have scarred England were motivated by pure criminality, but opposition politicians and academics say they also point to social deprivation.

As the last of the broken glass is swept up from city centres and shops reopen for business after four nights of violence and looting which spread from London to other cities, thoughts have turned to the causes of the violence.

Cameron initially reacted to what he called "disgusting" scenes by talking tough, ordering a near-tripling of police on London's streets and warning the rioters they would be tracked down and prosecuted.

The images of young, hooded men smashing their way into shops and making off with televisions, or trying on training shoes outside looted stores, showed that part of British society was "sick", the Conservative prime minister said.

He has refused to accept however that the violence had anything to do with poverty or that the riots were motivated by political protest.

Many Britons agree with him, with one poll showing 42 percent blamed criminal behaviour for the riots.

As the country reeled at the extent of the violence, the main opposition Labour party largely refused to score political points and avoided linking the riots to deep spending cuts brought in by Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.

"I think what we've got to do is to avoid simplistic solutions," said Labour leader Ed Miliband.

"I found myself thinking that this was individual criminal activity and there can be no excuse and justification for it -- but I know we need to go beyond that," he told BBC radio.

"Is it culture or is it poverty and lack of opportunity? It is probably both."

Miliband linked the looting to the banking crisis and the scandal of phone hacking by a tabloid newspaper, which showed a lack of responsibility and a "me first" mentality, and called for all of society to "look into our souls".

Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said it was not surprising politicians were struggling to formulate a response to the riots.

"What has happened significantly involves people breaking things and destroying them and stealing consumer goods, particularly trainers and plasma TV screens from shops," he told AFP.

"This is not a political point even though politicians will have to understand why it happened and react to it. But this was not a political riot or demonstration of any kind."

The trigger for the riots was the shooting of a man by police in the multi-ethnic north London suburb of Tottenham, although as the violence swept to other cities it appeared to be more copycat than in solidarity with any cause.

Professor Gus John from the University of London, who specialises in black issues, maintains however that the police tactics of "stop and search", particularly of young black men, breed resentment towards the police.

"So many of those young people who you'll have seen in the footage (of the riots) would have been people who have been regularly searched by the police, some of them resenting that massively," he said.

"I think to a large extent, it's an outpouring of pent-up anger against the police, but also total frustration with their situation as people who see no future for themselves."

But David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, insisted: "The polarisation is not between black and white. It is between those who have a stake in society and those who do not."

Yet many of the hundreds of suspects who have appeared in all-night court sessions following the violence do have jobs, and some were university-educated, such as 24-year-old Natasha Reid.

The graduate with ambitions to become a social worker appeared in court in London after handing herself into police for stealing a flat-screen television from a looted electronics store.

Another issue is starting to be heard on radio phone-ins and TV panel shows.

Many people wonder at the role of the young looters' parents when their children were ransacking shops at the height of the violence.

One boy in Manchester admitted he had no restraints from his parents, saying: "When I get home, nothing is going to happen to me. I might get shouted at, but I'm not going to get grounded."

An exasperated mother on BBC TV's Question Time on Thursday said British society had given young people "all the rights without any of the responsibilities".

"I can't even discipline my child. Children sue their parents these days," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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