This spinelessness is an invitation to riot

By shutting down normal life in response to some hooded youth, the authorities actually inflamed the instability.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

A lot of nonsense gets talked about ‘the Blitz Spirit’ and how much camaraderie there was in London as Hitler’s bombs rained down. But photographs from the period suggest that at least one bit of Blitz mythology is true: shopkeepers demonstrated a sometimes zany determination to keep their stores open. ‘Open As Usual’, said shop-window signs the morning after bombing raids. When shops got hit, leading perhaps to the collapse of a wall or explosion of a window, waggish owners put up signs saying ‘More Open Than Usual’ – both a literal description of the state of their store and a metaphorical expression of a desire to stay normal. A bombed shop in Shoreditch put up a sign saying ‘More entrances today than normal’; another, surrounded by its own rubble, had a notice saying: ‘Climb in for service.’


Workmen drill metal sheets
to a central London store.

How different things were in central London yesterday. At around 5pm, shops that are normally open until 8 or 9pm were boarding up their windows and doors with planks of wood or metal sheets – only not in response to possible Luftwaffe lunacy from the skies, but on the off-chance that a handful of teens and truants in masks, now known as The London Rioters, might pay them a visit. Workmen used automatic drills to screw huge metal tiles to the front of Currys and PC World on Tottenham Court Road, so that this normally thriving thoroughfare ended up looking like one of those dead seaside towns nobody visits anymore. A normally late-night Sainsbury’s was shut, annoying the hell out of office workers who had hoped to grab a TV dinner on their way home. ‘NO CASH HELD IN STORE OVERNIGHT’, said a makeshift sign in the window, which is another way of saying, ‘Please, please, please don’t rob us, scary thug people.’


An institution that survived
the Blitz capitulates to rioters.

The 24-hour food-and-wine shop near Baker Street, where I had hoped to get hold of a Twix, was closed for the first time I can remember. A handwritten note in the window said: ‘Closed. Sorry for the Inconvenience. :-)’ That smiley face failed to take the edge off the fact that a store which has provided Coke, crisps and giant chicken samosas to everyone from severe businesswomen who get to their offices at 6am to drunken youths who stumble past at 2am had been brought to heel by fears of feckless youth in faraway suburbs. Even Madame Tussauds was closed, ‘due to the recent activity in London’, a huge sign in its window said. This is a place that was completely gutted by Luftwaffe bombs in 1940 yet which reopened to great fanfare just two months later. And now it had pulled down its shutters and sent home its staff simply because, a few miles away, in Tottenham and Hackney, some youngsters have been burning cars.

This is extremely irrational behaviour, for so many reasons it is hard to know where to start. Firstly, there was no evidence whatsoever that the youths who have been wrecking their neighbourhoods of late planned to get the bus to central London and do the same there. Secondly, if you want your business to avoid getting bashed up then it is probably unwise to abandon ship and go home. And thirdly, whatever happened to the old idea that a society responds to threats – whether it’s a serious existential threat such as that posed by the Luftwaffe or the more minor physical threat posed by some tooled-up yoof – by standing its ground, refusing to be kowtowed, by staying rebelliously normal (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms)? Those Blitz-era shop signs were really about saying: ‘You can destroy our physical infrastructure, but not our morale.’ The new riot-era shop signs really say: ‘You have destroyed our morale. We’re off home. Please don’t do too much damage to our physical infrastructure. Thank you.’


Consumer London goes into
hiding.

For a Londoner like me, the saddest sight of the past four days has been the extraordinary levels of central institutional capitulation to the rioters. The police have been deployed to vast swathes of London at around lunchtime every day, where they have advised shops, restaurants, pubs and cinemas to shut up, board up, hide their valuables, and send home their staff, ‘out of harm’s way’. From Harrow in the extreme north of London, best known for its posh school, to Camberwell in the south, police have effectively been calling on what they view as decent society to retreat, to go into hiding, to insulate themselves and their property from any possible interaction with The Thugs. Their thinking seems to be that if we close down normal life, if we evacuate the streets of shoppers and socialisers, then maybe the rioters will look around, scratch their heads, give up, and go home. Of course, it has had exactly the opposite effect.

Because when you shut down normalcy in response to a bit of recreational rioting, you actually give the rioters an extraordinary feeling of power over society. You endow their relatively small-scale and completely pointless violence with disproportionate strength and influence. You effectively say to them: ‘By burning bus-stops and smashing Santanders in Hackney, you can bring all of London to a standstill!’ And when it comes to youth who seem pretty determined to display a bit of swagger and cock-of-the-walk violence, that is like waving a red rag to a bull. It is effectively an invitation to riot. By publicly advertising its fears and weaknesses, by demonstrating its abjectness and its willingness to retreat in the face of small numbers of misguided youth, society actually empowers anti-social elements and inflames their desire to have a pop. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that if you skulk away from your post, then others will feel tempted to tiptoe towards it.

Indeed, it seems largely to have been this institutional cowardice, this political wretchedness, the bizarre police-and-mayoral strategy of shutting down London in response to historically quite minor disturbances, which sustained the rioting over four days and nights and allowed it to spread around the country. Certainly the rioting is not being sustained by its pursuit of a political agenda (it has none) or by public backing (it has none. And no, sympathetic columns in the Guardian written by people who live nowhere near Hackney or Salford do not count as public backing.) Rather, it was the initially startled, hands-off attitude taken by the police, followed by the strategy of capitulation, which, in the words of one academic observer, probably filled the youths with an ‘adrenalin-fuelled euphoria’. The real story of these riots, if we look at them coolly, is not so much the fury of those on the outskirts of society, but rather the cowardice of those who are supposed to guard and uphold the centre of society. The riots are a product of the interplay between this institutional incoherence and the self-pitying politics of victimhood amongst the welfare state-raised kids ‘out there’.

Look London, if you really want to stop the rioting, then forget water cannons, plastic bullets, shutting down shops, or triple-locking your front doors. Just make society ‘More Open Than Usual’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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