London’s Burning August 9 2011

This is a terrible week .  The US and the UK and Europe all seem poised on the edge of financial disaster as the possibility of a massive devaluation of our currencies seems to grow, then this. Nights of appalling vandalism, arson and violence. One story that has not yet hit the press my wife brought back from her tennis game this morning. One of her friends was phoned by her daughter in London. She told how she and her partner had gone out to dinner in a restuarant in Notting Hill when suddenly the window was smashed in and a gang of boys brandishing baseball bats surged in. They shouted for all in the restuarant to get on the floor and then proceeded to shake them down for valuables, their cash, cards, watches, phones and jewels. The girl had her grandmothers ring pulled off her finger and her necklace ripped from her neck cutting her and breaking the string. Finally the cooks burst in from the kitchen brandishing their knives and the gang took flight – but with all their loot. What horrified her above all was how young they were.

It seems hundreds if not thousands have taken part in this rioting and looting, behaviour which is clearly the expression of a general anger, but also of contempt and alienation. It reminded me of the scenario depicted in the last of JG Ballards novels where parts of London suddenly descend into casual violence. TV shoed us “feral youth” exhibitiong a casual indifference towards the suffering fear and devastation they were causing as they tweeted away like characters in some 3D video game.  “Recreational vandalism” Dianne Abbot cleverly called it.  This is community, social and family breakdown on a very significant scale.  Obviously it seems to me the first step of government has to be that this behaviour is crushed and the perpetraors pursued, charged and punished, and victims will need all sorts of compensation. The question remains.  How can we begin to put this right and will we not find that there will be a repressive and enraged reaction taken by the majority who will bay for strong leadership and a “robust” response.  That could easily polarise and divide our society even more.

Our international reputation as one of the best if not the best example of a truly cosmopolitan culture, open and accepting of difference, peaceful and generally law-abiding will now be in tatters.  London this week-end has looked worse than Johannesburg even if the actual murder rate has beeen far far lower. And then we look forward to the Olympics. Does that now still look credible?


Parliament recalled, the police flood the street with an extra ten thousand officers and behold the looters melt away.  People appear on the streets with brooms and the PM makes and extremely good, balanced and comprehensive speech dealing it seems with all the issues and up jumps Milliband to agree with almost everything.

The deep seated causes for aleination however remain and the Conservatives are not prepared to say that the gross inequalities in our society have anything to do with it. Talk of a breakdown in morality and a broken society and the Big Society all ring hollow unless it is recognised that only with seriously redistributive taxation will there be enough public expenditure to be able to educate, re-orientate, skill and support those who are not winners – the “underclass” so that we can all feel part of a mutually supportive society and community. Well that is how I feel.

This week I read a very well argued piece in of all places Time by economist Rana Foroohar arguing that “inequality is a cause, not just a symtom of the current crisis in the US”  Median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households” and the richest 1% now have 20%  of the income share while the rest have not had an increase for 40 years. These figures are staggering but must have been carefully checked for such an influential publication.