Tearing up the social contract – the London riots

EVENTS in London and other cities throughout England in recent days have forced a lot of people into re-evaluating the society they live in.

The horrific scenes were made all the more troubling by the fact that these weren’t people striking at the heart of power (no crowds gathered in Westminster, for example), but they turned on their fellow citizens in reprehensible acts of violence and wanton destruction.

It is the hard-working business owners and residents in the areas of London, Birmingham and the other cities targeted who have been left counting the cost of the violence, rioting, looting and vandalism.

The murder of three men in Birmingham in the early hours of this morning, after they were rammed by a car, is truly sickening and adds further fuel to the fiery and justifiable anger of decent, law-abiding people.

The footage emerging from the streets in recent days has been scarcely believable. Livelihoods going up in flames; businesses being looted by children; people being assaulted and mugged… the extent of what happened has been shocking.

There are no excuses for it.

The question does have to be asked though: why did this happen?

Now, I don’t have the answer and if anyone does it is undoubtedly a hugely complex one, involving many different factors, but it still has to be asked, even if it seems like trying to make sense of the senseless acts that have wreaked havoc in recent days.

And I don’t mean, why was this “allowed” to happen? That has been the burning question on many of the news reports I’ve watched and articles I’ve read in recent days.

It’s almost as if everyone knew and accepted that many (mostly young) people in England were perfectly capable of such total disregard for human life and property, it has just been a matter of keeping them in check  So we’re not surprised they did what they did, we’re just surprised they were allowed to?

There is no doubt the police and politicians have questions to answer about their response to the riots, particularly as they escalated out of control. People have a right to feel safe in their homes. They have a right to expect that their business cannot be burned down on a whim.

Why has the budget for policing been cut so significantly? Will it be cut further, even following the events of recent days? These are all relevant questions.

But the reality of the situation is that the police can only do so much. This is true of every city and State, not just London or Manchester.

If enough people, anywhere, decide that they are going to go on the rampage and cause utter mayhem and destruction, they will not be stopped. There are only so many police officers and they are vastly outnumbered by the citizens they work for.

In practice, we are all the law enforcers as well as the law breakers. The police, like our politicians, are given their authority by us. It is part of the social contract we enter into for our mutual benefit or, that old chestnut, “the common good”. The vast majority of us don’t need to be policed to abide by the law, we just do.

What has happened in England in recent days is that a huge number of people tore up that contract. They rejected the terms in a frightening display of criminality and lawlessness.

Now, you won’t have heard any of them articulate this on the news of course. You will have heard poorly educated, opportunist looters trying to justify despicable acts of criminality with incoherent ramblings about the police, tax etc

But there was no cause here, no quest for justice and it’s quite clear that the vast majority of those involved care very little about the fate of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old whose shooting by police in Tottenham last Thursday triggered this series of events.

No, this was criminal opportunism on a massive scale. A chance to have a go at the police. A chance to run riot. A chance to cause serious criminal damage. A chance to steal, assault and engage in all the worst examples of human nature.

What really concerns me is how many people availed of the opportunity.

Of course it is a minority of people that have decided to reject the social contract and many others, in different ways, as you can see here and here, took a stand against them – the majority of people in London and elsewhere, remain law-abiding citizens.

But how big is the minority and is it growing? And what is the environment they are growing up and living in that fosters such blatant disregard for their fellow citizens first and foremost, but also the law.

The official line that has emerged is that the mayhem that visited London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other English cities was “caused by a small minority of young people intent on criminal destruction”.

However, this “small minority” vastly outnumbered the police at times. And let’s not forget that the arrest of a small minority of that small minority also managed to fill every cell in London.

There was a mix of genders, ages and races involved in what happened. It’s not easy to pinpoint a particular group, though it is fair to say that the majority of them were young men from poor areas.

This is probably where you expect me to start making excuses for what has been happening – I won’t. But surely it’s in the interests of everyone to ask why so many people could behave like this?

They were not born angry. They are not born into gangs or lives of crime. They are, however, born into poverty and that is a cycle that is only becoming harder to break.

The gap between rich and poor grows wider and as it does the ties that bind all of us, our social contract, starts to make a lot less sense for people who feel that there is nothing in this for them.

If enough people feel they have nothing to gain and nothing to lose then that is a serious problem for all of us.

An increasingly large number of people in poor areas are becoming disenfranchised. And not just in England. Anyone who thinks the same elements at play in London or Birmingham do not exist in Dublin or Paris is simply wrong.

Of course there has always been crime and there have always been rich and poor, but the situation as it stands presently has been greatly exacerbated by the global economic crisis.

A huge amount of jobs have been lost, pay is being cut and taxes are being increased. Opportunities have been never been as limited for people. Many of them just can’t see a way out. Try telling people in the poorest areas of our cities that the markets have had a bad day (or year, for that matter).

A swathe of savage cuts to services has also hit people hard. These services working to address inequality that exists in the very areas that produced many of the troublemakers have also been greatly scaled back or, in many cases, closed.

Wexford man, Eugene Waters, Community Partnerships Manager in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, spoke to me about this situation yesterday and you can see what he had to say about it below.

On top of all this trust in the authorities has been seriously eroded. And before the riots began in London the social contract I’m talking about had already been trampled all over by bankers and politicians, mainly fuelled by greed and power. People in Ireland and Greece, for example, know all about this too. The problem stems from the top as much as the bottom.

Then in England they’ve also had the unedifying spectacle of the MPs’ expenses scandal and the phone hacking scandal, which implicated not just the media in extensive corruption and criminality, but also the police. Once again, the politicians were smack in the middle of it all.

Do those people who were out robbing laptops and runners with apparent glee feel they have a share in a social contract? Obviously they don’t. Then the question arises are these all scumbags simply bent on destruction no matter what their upbringing, education or the opportunities they are given?

Is there not the capacity for a good citizen anywhere amongst these young people?

If there isn’t and there is nothing that a society can do to address the problem of the increasingly disenfranchised then this week’s events are merely a warning of what could lie ahead for many cities.

If there is, then there are obviously serious issues that need to be addressed in a meaningful way. It won’t be easy and will take political will, money and investment, but it’s definitely in the interest of the common good.

Bringing those responsible for the crimes of the past week to justice (and each and every one of them should pay for their crimes) will not address the root of the problem, it will only temporarily paper over the ever-widening cracks.


THE BRITISH government must not dismiss the riots there this week as purely driven by criminality or they will fail to learn a significant lesson, according to a Wexford man working in one of London’s poorest communities.
Eugene Waters, from Davidstown, Co Wexford, is the Community Partnerships Manager in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It is one of the poorest boroughs in the UK and covers much of the traditional East End of London.
Though he said he’s not in any way excusing the serious criminality that has been occurring in London since last week, he said that there are still “two sides to it” and that severe cuts to youth and community services have played a significant role in the current crisis.
‘”A lot of the crime and violence taking place here now is simple opportunism. It’s not the same as the situation in Brixton in the ‘80s, when there was a deeper ideological strand to it,” said Eugene.
However, he still feels that a lot of the current trouble has stemmed from the fact that a generation is being disenfranchised by the swathe of severe cuts and austerity measures.
Eugene pointed out that David Cameron’s government introduced a “big society” drive to “empower” communities, but it has in fact done the opposite.
Government and local government funded-agencies and organisations moved out of areas where youth and community organisations were supposed o take up the slack.
However, many of these youth and community services were themselves suffering from serious budget cuts and have been unable to replicate the work of the publicly funded services that had been there before.
“The very people supposed to step into the breach have had their budgets slashed. A lot of youth clubs and youths services have closed as a result,” said Eugene.
He pointed out that the wide-ranging cuts imposed have also hit work placement programmes and crucial education initiatives that attempted to help bridge the widening gaps between young people in the poorest parts of London and third level education.
“It doesn’t excuse what’s happened here, but if you have young people occupied with something and being kept on the straight and narrow through various services, you can’t just take those services away and expect there to be no consequences,” said Eugene.
“If you are 16 or 17-years-old at the moment and from a poor community you would be asking yourself ‘does anyone care about me?’. It doesn’t in any way excuse what has been happening, but a huge number of people have become disenfranchised,”‘ he said.
“What I’d be worried about and what I hope doesn’t happen is that this turns into an ‘us and them’ situation. If the government takes that black and white approach to this problem and fails to learn any lessons then it will not resolve the underlying problems. The cuts to services that have taken place really need to be heeded,” said Eugene.


Many people in London and throughout the UK, like Eugene, have been concerned for some time about the massive spending cuts imposed on youth services and the potential consequences. Here is a recent piece addressing the issue.

Posted on August 9, 2011, in Community, Crime, London and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I like your article Conor and find myself agreeing with a lot of your points. I don’t think this was the disenfranchised ‘yoof’ of Britain taking as stand against the authorities, it was simply opportunistic mindless thieving and thuggery. It reminds me of a documentary about chimps, which shows how civilised and social they are, before quickly illustrating their capacity and need to attack and canabalise their own kind.

    I found it galling to hear high ranking police and government saying how they would not use plastic bullets on rioters, using civil rights as the excuse when they should have said ‘we don’t have the money for it’.

    • Hi Kevin, thanks for the feedback.
      I agree with you (and David Cameron) that they weren’t taking a stand and you’re right when you say it was “simply opportunistic mindless thieving and thuggery”. It was criminality, but what is at the root of this behaviour?
      What I’m driving at is that such a significant number of people, in different cities, jumped on this opportunity so quickly I feel it shows something serious has gone wrong in our society.
      The conditions that could lead so many, mostly young, people to act like this are, in my opinion, one of the main factors in what has happened. That’s not to excuse the behaviour in any way, but there are serious underlying problems related to cycles of poverty and inequality.
      Cameron was right to vow today that each and every person who committed a crime is brought to justice. But there is a bigger picture here that any number of arrests won’t solve and the worse the economic crisis gets the clearer it’s going to become I fear.
      Regarding your second point, the thing I found most interesting about that was that it’s one rule for the citizens of Northern Ireland and another for the citizens of England. Here’s an interesting read on that point: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/09/plastic-bullets-warning-police-orde

  1. Pingback: Saoirse Ronan’s Underwear « conorcullen

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