This afternoon in Croydon the pedestrianised high street was shut for business, but groups of onlookers milled around, as
business owners boarded or re-boarded windows and doors in expectation of another night of violence. The mood was one of curiosity and consternation. “Why did they have to do it in Croydon?” one little girl asked. Why Croydon indeed? But why anywhere? It seems this is the question that everyone is struggling to grapple with.
There is a prevalent line being trotted out by any number of those involved in the events of the past 48 hours, about the spending cuts, the abolition of the EMA, the lack of opportunities and jobs for young people. This man gave perhaps the most erudite summation of that idea:
And it rings true: there is immense frustration and resentment amongst the youth. But that is far from the whole story: as has been widely commented in the last couple of days, the look of giddy glee writ large on the faces of many of those looting their favourite neighbourhood stores speaks volumes: for all the very real and justifiable anger both at recent cutbacks in municipal provision, and at the injustices and stereotyping inherent in the policing of the city, this is also simply the best show in town.
Another local resident also placed the blame for recent events on the establishment, but was critical not of the cutbacks and reforms, but rather (perhaps bizarrely) of modern adaptations to parenting law:
Rounding the corner of North End, I came upon London Mayor Boris Johnson striding down the street amid a throng of people. Face set and eyes locked ahead, he said nothing except how very sorry he was for what had happened. At his side, a young man was peppering him with questions. “You don’t know what it’s like, do you Boris? To jump through those hoops, to apply for this job and that job, to get nothing, nowhere? And you’re taking the money out of our pockets now aren’t you? Taking the food from our bellies. We’ve got to eat!” Boris said nothing, not a word. Didn’t even turn his head. Strode on. “Why do you think this is happening? Do you really think this is over?” Still nothing. An aide came up beside the young man and started talking to him. Gratified not to be blanked, he responded, and they fell into conversation. Within a few yards, the aide had slowed and moved away, taking Boris’s questioner with him, to the side and the back of the throng.
Immediately Boris stopped and turned the other way, a beaming smile on his face, to be surrounded by smiling middle-aged ladies wanting photographs. And Boris was back on: smiling, joking, charming – basking in the glow of flash bulbs.
And this, I thought, is exactly how politics works: the uncomfortable questions are sidestepped or ignored, the public fobbed off with deferments and assurances while the politician himself moves serenely onwards, photo-op to photo-op, soundbite-to-soundbite.
Perhaps the most astute opinion I heard voiced today was shared by a young man and an older lady who otherwise seemed fundamentally to disagree on everything. They were agreeing that the causes of the rioting were indeed political, but that they were not related to the cuts. Instead, they said, it was about political culture, and the aspirational cult of radical individualism that has taken root in the last 15 years. We have been encouraged by an amoral belief system to become amoral beings. “Help yourself get on, and get rich” has been the prevailing message of the New Politics – and wilfully or not, it seems the rioters have taken it to heart.