Not being a politician, I did not cut short my vacation this summer, even as the city where I live, London, burned. Leaders invoked the Spirit of the Blitz, of keeping the upper lip stiff, and, as the famous poster at the start of World War II instructed Londoners, to “keep calm and carry on”. (All of which makes useful advice for Indian cricket fans this summer.)
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Levity apart, the streets were quiet and orderly when I returned, the several nights of violence and arson seemed like scenes from another place. It wasn’t an insurrection because it wasn’t a response to political repression, and nor a riot, as it had no root cause. It was plain and simple looting.
The trigger was when the police killed a black man during a chase, but a racial riot didn’t follow. But verdict came in quickly: Blacks were blamed first for the looting. But then facts interfered with theories: a white lass from London’s leafy suburbs, daughter of a millionaire and studying at university, was arrested for assisting theft; a teaching assistant at a school, hiding his face from cameras, admitted his role; an Olympic ambassador was arrested, as were a couple of civil servants. The perpetrators looked like, well, Britons. Courts worked round the clock processing cases, harsh sentences were meted out: A man given a six-month term for stealing a bottle of water; another sent away for four years because he attempted to organize a riot on Facebook and no one, except the police, turned up, to arrest him. Some of the troublemakers were white, living in some comfort. No matter, historian David Starkey said on television that those whites were acting black.
Sitting in India, a veteran pro-Hindutva journalist asked me about the terror, or Muslim, angle. It wouldn’t fit his narrative. Three Muslim youths died when a driver (now arrested) drove his car deliberately to run over them, while they were protecting their neighbourhood in Birmingham. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, honoured the dignified grief of the father of one of the victims by writing a moving poem. Other Muslims—Somali, Turk, and Bangladeshi—defended their neighbourhoods, as did Sikhs in Southall. As a wag noted ironically: “Bloody foreigners! They come to our country and protect our streets!”
The violence also revealed, rather starkly, London’s quaint and uncomfortable insularity, where an Englishman’s home is his castle, and he is oblivious of the surroundings, and communities live besides one another without knowing much about the other. When someone got arrested, the neighbours often said: “But he seemed like a nice chap, never bothered anyone.” This is an old English trait, and Thatcher-era individualism had little to do with it. In The Satanic Verses, one of the finest novels about migration (and about what happened to Britain in Thatcher’s first decade), Salman Rushdie wrote about “the city visible but unseen”, of the many cities within cities, in the vicinity and beyond, visible but unseen, living by different codes, often in different centuries, in atomized lives, with limited sense of shared experience.
The Left and Right stayed close to their talking points almost parodying themselves, as if in a Hanif Kureishi play. The Left’s villains—individualism, consumerism, and materialism, combined with spending cuts the coalition government has announced, reducing public expenditure. (Never mind that the cuts are yet to take effect.) The looting wasn’t political at all. Nobody went to Westminster, nobody protested rising university fees, no library was attacked, pharmacies weren’t looted for unaffordable medicines, and supermarkets weren’t raided for bread or milk. The looters, like in the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”, were influenced by images: they wanted flat-screen TV sets, expensive jeans, iPhones, and trainers.
The Right was no better either, blaming the welfare state’s culture of dependency. It bemoaned the lack of parental authority and cursed the state for mollycoddling the underclass. That British youth unemployment rate is among the highest in advanced economies is a serious problem, but the functional illiteracy of many youth can’t be fixed by shouting at them, or punishing them with harsher sentences. There’s a collective societal failure.
But who has the moral authority to point out the shame? Not the politicians, dozens of whom had fraudulently claimed expenses in Parliament for outrageous home improvements. Not the journalists, busy hacking phones of celebrities, politicians, footballers, and even ordinary people, including crime victims. Not the tycoons avoiding taxes and threatening to move their operations to low-tax regimes, nor bankers, who had run their banks to the ground and then sought state bailout. And not the police either, deeply complicit as they were in the phone-hacking scandal, receiving cash and freebies from media companies.
To be sure, none of this justifies the torching of an old furniture store, destroying small shops and businesses, ending many British dreams. There wasn’t a single cause, there were many; but when every cause is blamed, no cause really gets the blame.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com