“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” @abcnewsintern
In 532 Constantinople was besieged by what remains the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand from there. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment in the city over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. Just when it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.
I was thinking of Justinian as this quaint notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. As the papers would tell you, lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that seems to pay no attention to everything that has gone before it. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory or nor is it possible to admit the notion they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs only because “they have nothing better to do”.
Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem had well and truly been smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a proximate cause, a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been another excuse for a conflagration. The materialism at the heart of British society takes no prisoners and even an army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t change the reality the disenfranchised will be back for more.
The British media cares not to dwell on this fact. As the Murdoch scandal showed they are now part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power or the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate only to hang on to their privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.
Who is there to trust? The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of "the other". Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless wealthy royals.
30 years after the riots of her own making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people are willing to commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then clearly the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the other end of the scale seem to be getting away with their crimes, so why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.
My sympathies go out to the small businesses that suffered greatly across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and must expect, like any soft target, to be picked on again and again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.