New College of the Humanities

The riots and the lessons of history

What, if any, historical parallels can be made with the riots that have erupted in many parts of Britain over recent days?

The remains of a carpet store in Tottenham, north London, after the riots. Photo / Alan StantonThe fact that Waterstone’s book shop was the only store left untouched during Monday night’s disturbances at Clapham Junction in south London tells us a great deal about the intellectual aspirations of London’s rioting community. It’s probably safe to assume that History Today is not their journal of choice and that their shelves are not stacked with the works of Gibbon, Macaulay or Trevelyan. Nevertheless, as editor of History Today, I usually feel bound to draw historic parallels with contemporary events of import, which these nights of riot seem to be.

Had the events that took place in Tottenham on Saturday night and Sunday morning ended then and there, I would have drawn parallels with the Brixton Riots of April 1981: both, it appears, were the result of a suspicious death inflicted on a black person by the police. But the events that followed suggest that this has been something quite different, in scale and motivation. There is an interesting piece from our archive on a racial aspect of the Gordon Riots of 1780, the viciously anti-Catholic demonstrations that scarred London and became a byword for violent bigotry, and themselves a distant echo of the 'Evil May Day' race riots of 1517. But, again, though interesting in itself, I am not sure what, if any, illuminating parallels can be drawn with the events of the last few days.

In fact, the author who appears to bring most light to the riots is not a historian but a futurologist: the science fiction writer J.G. Ballard who, in his later novels such as Kingdom Come (2006), offers a remarkably prescient vision of what might be called ‘psychopathic consumerism’. He may have been influenced by the bizarre riot that occurred at the Edmonton branch of Ikea, the nightmarish but inexpensive home fittings store, in 2005. This extreme form of consumerism appears to have entered a new phase heralded by the Internet, and the creation of a culture in which everything must be free, whether music, museums, education, trainers, or mobile phones.

Consumerism has become the religion of our age, replacing what the ‘Blue Labour’ advocate Lord Glasman calls ‘flag, faith and family’, the traditional values on which the early British welfare state was born and that informed the postwar consensus of both the Labour and Conservative parties. That consensus has long gone, though as it has broken down, Britain’s political and media class have come closer together. All three major parties are now essentially headed by liberals, all three of whom are the product of metropolitan, sometimes cosmopolitan privilege, their ideas a hybrid of the social liberalism of Roy Jenkins and the economic liberalism of Margaret Thatcher. In the Conservative Party, traditional Tories, such as David Davis and Patrick Mercer are marginalised; as are the socially conservative guardians of the Labour Party’s traditional values, such as Jon Cruddas and Frank Field. I don’t claim to have the predictive abilities of J.G. Ballard, but I will take a punt that, to paraphrase George Dangerfield, we are about to witness the quick death of liberal England. Who will fill the gap remains to be seen.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has been one of the few members of government to be willing to do the rounds of the TV studios this week, offering his usual mix of pugnacious political ambition and apologetic humility. He, or whoever takes his place, has the most important and immediate task of all. For, as the historian Correlli Barnett says today: ‘We have long had the worst education and training system in northern Europe. The result is that we have a vast number of young people, not through their own fault, who are not really trained in any practical sense for life at all.’ When one sees the television pictures of the looters, many of them schoolchildren, one may be reminded of this line from Geoffrey Hill’s great meditation on English history, The Triumph of Love: ‘Strange Children, pitiless in their ignorance and contempt.’

But they have been betrayed, as we all have, by governments whose mantra was that of that charming buffoon Bill Clinton: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Well, who is stupid now that we have seen where that monomaniacal obsession with ‘things’, and the accompanying debt, has got us? And who will articulate the alternatives?

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