Postcard from London

Updated: May 10, 2020

I’ve never known anything like what has happened in London these past few days. And what, it seems, is continuing to happen here and in cities across the country. It is frightening and depressing.

Frightening for obvious reasons, depressing because reasons and answers are hard to come by. I’ve not slept much. It’s hard to settle. We stayed up late, unable to take ourselves away from the images of senseless, frightening violence and looting. We can hear sirens. My mum, who was visiting, stayed over – we couldn’t let her travel back across London last night. We are now living in a city we feel unable to move about freely in, and where we wonder how safe we are.

The depression comes because it is hard to see where this is going, or when it stops. This is not a political uprising, there are no demands, there seems to be no point of contact. Small businesses and people’s homes are being attacked and burned, seemingly just for the hell of it. And the extent of the rioters’ ambition seems to be stealing TV’s, trainers and mobiles.

But because this is not a political uprising does not mean there are not political reasons behind it. There’s a lot of cod-revolutionary theory being peddled by people on the left desperate to fit the square peg events of the past few days into the round whole of their pet theory and, frankly, it’s getting a bit tiresome. But there’s also a lot of evasive, dishonest rubbish being peddled by a right which won’t take responsibility for the effects of what is happening and which attacks others for playing politics while peddling its own politics.

There is no single cause to these riots. Not everyone participating has the same agenda – if any. But it cannot be pretended that the political and economic shape of current times has no effect. Mary Riddell makes a thoughtful contribution in The Telegraph – no doubt soon to be condemned as a left-wing rag by any Government minister that manages to actually engage as the country they are supposed to be governing slides into chaos.

If you believe that we can make the kind of cuts this government is imposing by simply reducing the number of paper clips ordered and scaling back some red tape you are as stupid and deluded as those who think this is a people’s uprising. The kind of behaviour we are seeing on the scale we are seeing it doesn’t just happen. It has causes.

It’s also worth remembering that the firefighters, the local government workers, the hospital workers – all of whom have been on the front line dealing with this – are those very workers who have been consistently attacked for their allegedly gold-plated pensions, their allegedly cosseted and dubious working conditions.

And then there’s the police. This view from Teresa May last September reveals how utterly deluded this government is – and that’s if we are to take what these people say at face value. Surely now the proposed cuts to the police cannot go ahead? But let’s also reflect that these cuts have not yet happened and that the police’s actions and response must be questioned. It’s not surprising, after the student demos, Fortnums and the hacking scandal – to name just a few recent instances – that confidence in the police is not high. Now there are serious questions to ask about why the police don’t find it as easy to stop shops being burned yards from where they are standing as they do to bully and terrorise a bunch of kids in a department store.

That’s a legitimate question to ask if, as you must, you believe that there has to be order and respect for authority. But that respect has to be gained and, as Mary Riddell points out in the piece linked above, “A section of young Britain has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation”. If seasoned campaigners like me find it hard to see what realistic alternative any of the political solutions we are offered provide, is it any wonder that a generation which has never been engaged simply riot, steal and burn for the hell of it?

It’s easy to pose questions, harder to find answers. And hard, right now, to see any positives ahead. There’s a nasty stench of fascism creeping into some of the discussion about all this, another indication of the obstacles we must negotiate. I know that people genuinely committed to a decent society need to make themselves heard – I’m just not sure yet how we do it.

7.51am Update: As I wrote my first news story of the morning for Daily Finance, my Twitter stream began to pulse with the #riotcleanup hashtag. The call is for communities to take back their neighbourhoods by meeting and clearing up. It’s a hopeful sign which displays the London resilience and proper fight that I feared was gone.


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