What caused the London riots?

Posted by on Feb 12th, 2012  |  Last modified on Apr 12th, 2013

Last updated on April 12th, 2013 at 09:10 am

On Wednesday next week I have been invited ‘on air’ at the London studio of the Russian state international radio broadcaster Voice of Russia to talk about social media and its impact on politics.  I’ve been told that one of the areas we’ll cover will be the crazy London riots that happened back in August 2011.  Not having really analysed how the riots came about I thought I’d jot down some of my thoughts and do a little bit of research in preparation so hopefully I have one or two interesting things to say.  So, here in no particular order are my main reasons for why and how the 2011 London Riots happened:


1. Communications technology

Amongst the vast majority of London’s ‘gangsta’ culture influenced urban youth, the communication tool of choice is the Blackberry Messenger system which allows secure and encrypted messaging, one to many and many to many, across networks. While Facebook and Twitter had a more limited role in helping organise the riots it was the closed and more private Blackberry Messenger service that gave the participants the confidence and ability to arrange and lead the looting on a wide scale and allowed the rioting to spread like wildfire.

2. Response from the authorities

The original Tottenham outburst was precipitated by the shooting by police of Mark Duggan without the police giving an adequate explanation for their apparent over-zealous approach.  A peaceful gathering to protest against Mark Duggan’s killing outside the police station was then ignored by the police for several hours.  The already poor relationship with the communities they police was exacerbated by the police’s alleged illegal shooting and as the riots spread the Metropolitan police force continued to show a lack of communication and decision making ability.  Combined with the fact that David Cameron and the whole of Westminster were on their overly long annual summer break meant that a kind of institutional paralysis took hold which made it very difficult for the authorities to adequately respond to the contagious spread of the rioting.

3. State dependant ‘communities’

I think it is too simplistic to talk about disenfranchisement, the growing gap between rich and poor, social exclusion and deprivation. Instead we should look at the contributory factors that fuel the lack of hope, ambition and responsibility and analyse the reasons why these communities don’t function, why they breed poverty and waste resources rather than generate wealth.

Gang culture, criminal opportunism, family breakdown and unemployment, I believe all mostly emanate from the pernicious effect the welfare state has on communities. It can’t be a coincidence that the areas of London where the rioting took place are Labour controlled and receive high levels of welfare spending.  This means that the state replaces the social bonds between people, creates dependency on handouts, encourages and rewards anti-social behaviour and makes it uneconomic for people to co-operate with each other, in short bringing about a sense of alienation where there is an absence of a sense of being in a productive relationship with their physical and social environment.

4. Moral decay at the top

I remember soon after the riots a piece by Daily Telegraph commentator Peter Oborne linking the riots to corrupt corporatism, unjustified bankers’ bonuses, the MP’s expenses scandal and the phone hacking scandal picked up a lot of support across the political spectrum in the blogosphere.  Amongst the urban youths rioting and stealing from shops there seemed to be a feeling that the widely reported moral decay at the top of society could somehow excuse their behaviour and that this was their opportunity to both demonstrate their displeasure with the elite, as well as to thieve other’s property themselves.

About Jonathan Lea

Jonathan is a specialist business law solicitor who has been practising for over 14 years, starting at the top international City firms, before then working at smaller practices and since 2013 for himself.

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