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Comparisons between the disturbances in London and other cities last week should not be overplayed argues Ted Cantle CBE who led a major review of the riots of the early 1980s.

Views about the London riots (and those in other cities) seem to divide between those who see the cause as one of ‘basic criminality’ and those that are searching for a deeper meaning in which people have been motivated by some form of political or economic alienation. And rather predictably this divides between those on the left ant those on the right.

It is difficult to make a connection between these riots and those of the past. The riots in the 1980s revolved around the black community who had experienced disadvantage, discrimination and harsh policing over many years. The riots ten years ago in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham had also been simmering for some time with little understanding between Asian and white communities who both felt that the other were getting a better deal. Both these previous riots had a racial element and both could be linked to disadvantage.

By contrast, there is no doubt that a large measure of the present activity - it can hardly be called a ‘riot’ where it is simple looting and vandalism - is driven by opportunistic theft with many young people, sometimes supported by elders and even their parents, grabbing what they can. Some may also be driven by the thrill of arson and vandalism, just to relieve the boredom and create some excitement. A teacher friend of mine said that it reminded her of the shout of ‘fight, fight, fight!’ that goes up in the playground before everyone piles in.

The link with poverty and deprivation also seems somewhat tenuous. True, many of the areas involved are poor – Tottenham, Handsworth, Toxteth, St Paul’s, Brixton - all have form in this respect. They also have a significant ethnic minority population, which has given the BNP the opportunity to link the upheavals to ‘race’. But the areas involved have included more affluent areas and the people involved are not in any way limited to minorities. Black people feature heavily in the areas which are dominated by minorities and white people are most likely to be charged in the white communities. The evidence from the early court appearances is that the individuals are not necessarily jobless, or from poorer communities.

Any semblance of political justification also seems to be post hoc and of no real value. There is no evidence of political activity, no protests movements, no political demands; not even slogans. It is mostly the commentators, rather than those involved, that are trying to find some link to government policies.

Perhaps the more interesting question is about why so many people are willing to grasp the instant gratification of criminal opportunities, have so little regard for their communities and businesses and are prepared to battle with the police and willing to risk a criminal record which will stay with them for a very long time? Has greed and irresponsibility become endemic - the bankers bonuses, the MPs fiddling their expenses, the burgeoning debts, the press hacking scandal - and is this is now an ‘our turn’ casual mentality which pervades ordinary communities? And yes perhaps with the ‘have nots’ being most tempted, to join in and take advantage of the situation.

At a micro level, it is also possible that the inculcation of difference between right and wrong is less evident, with parents outsourcing their responsibilities to dawn to dusk schools, Sure Start centres and other extensive internet and virtual reference groups. The abusive language, casual drunkenness and loutish behaviour seems to go unchecked, in contrast to the ‘zero tolerance’ approach, evident in some other countries. Is it that the minor indiscretions can easily escalate and cross the boundary into more serious crime?

Governments cannot establish ‘values’, but they do need to think about how communities build social capital, how the cohesion of communities is impacted by their policies and how local institutions can enjoy trust and engender respect for basic norms of decent behaviour. Clearly, the formula is not right for our present challenges, but in the aftermath of these events we have an opportunity to make the change.


Professor Ted Cantle CBE is Chair of the Institute of Community Cohesion (iCoCo). In August 2001, he was appointed by the Home Secretary to lead the review on the causes of the summer disturbances in a number of northern towns and cities.

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