In riot-free Scotland, we had best not be complacent


by Kenneth Roy

The natives are restless, and the torch has arrived in the Olympic city a year early. For the worried little faces on BBC Breakfast this morning, the news was suddenly too close for comfort. Just around the corner was alight; the troubles of the world had at last penetrated west London. There are the usual ritualistic expressions of shock, even disbelief, yet all the portents were in place. After a mid-summer distinguished by the stench of moral corruption, we have an August of rioting in the streets. ‘Only connect’.

As Dave returns from Tuscany, happily reconciled with the waitress who asked him to fetch his own coffee, he will be rearranging his features in what passes for his statesmanlike pose – Dave’s national crisis face – while his friend Boris, defeat in the next mayoral election now a foregone conclusion, will be left to pick up the pieces – miscellaneous bits of London as well as what is left of his political career. I shouldn’t expect either of them will be connecting soon, if ever, with the roots of the crisis.

Unfortunately, Dave and Boris are not conspicuously bright. Dave was so unbright that, after 13 years of Blair and Brown, he was unable to win the general election on his own and required Nick’s help. How unbright is that?

So we can expect to hear the word ‘inexcusable’ slipping rather a lot from the lips of the Tory rich boys in the next 48 hours. But ‘inexcusable’ won’t cut it; nor such tired headlines as ‘The rule of the mob’. The old judgemental language of politics is impotent in the face of the smart phone and the tweet. Dave, Boris and the Daily Torygraph will have to do better than that. ‘Only connect’ now means popular organisation – of protest, revolt or just plain hooliganism – on the internet.

Andrew Gilligan, in a revealing piece in the Spectator just before the current excitements, got it right when he wrote of London: ‘Too many people feel shut out of the party’. It was a specific reference to the difficulty of obtaining tickets for next year’s bread and circus (unless, of course you happen to be one of the sponsors, in which case you’re entitled to half the stadium). But his words have acquired a more generally prophetic ring. Yes: too many people do feel shut out of the party, the somewhat larger party of British life.

Since the Olympic folly is such a neat symbol of much that is wrong, let’s look at it first. A Scotsman, Robin Wales, a Kilmarnock Academy boy for heaven’s sake, is one of the biggest cheerleaders for these games. Wales cannot be wholly blamed for his want of sound judgement since he happens to be mayor of the London borough, Newham, which was supposed to benefit most from the economic bonanza. From his mayoral office, we have been hearing all the required patriotic noises for years.

No one entering the city from outside, especially after a long absence, could fail to be struck by the co-existence of rampant money-making and profound marginalisation.

Recently, however, even Wales has been betraying signs of disillusion. In 2004 one of the Tory boys, Sebastian Coe, said that more than 9,000 new homes would be created around the Olympic village. Seven years later, the commitment has been cut to 2,800. Coe also promised ‘the biggest new park in Europe for 200 years’. It has turned out to be the biggest new park in Europe for 12 years. Andrew Gilligan pointed out a remarkable fact about the impact of the Olympics on Newham: in 2005, when London was awarded the great prize/poisoned chalice (delete according to taste), unemployment in the Olympic borough was 70% above the city’s average; in 2011, it is still 70% above the city’s average.

In the coming days, we will be treated to many sermonettes on the two Londons, as if the phenomenon had just become observable. Perhaps the people who live there and occupy positions of power and influence – the sort of people who attend all-night summer parties at the Murdochs – are too close to the scene of the tragedy to have noticed it before; or perhaps they are too smug and self-absorbed. But no one entering the city from outside, especially after a long absence, could fail to be struck by the co-existence of rampant money-making and profound marginalisation.

Go to somewhere like Brixton, not far from the London residences of many MPs, and you are palpably aware of social disconnection. Each of the communities of interest is basically tribal and detached. Wealth and privilege separate them (of course), but in other ways they are curiously alike in their isolation from the values of what we used to call civilised society.

It was surprising earlier in the summer how the corrupt interweaving of media and politics, which might have been a story of narrow interest to the chattering classes, hit the streets in a big way and became a topic of common conversation. This demonstrated, among other things, the degree of public loathing of journalists and politicians, but above all it spoke to the corrosive loss of confidence in the police. At the height of the scandal, when it was claimed by reliable sources that a fifth of all Metropolitan Police officers had been on the take from the tabloid press, some paid thousands of pounds in brown envelopes by the guardians of free speech, were we surprised? Shocked, perhaps, but not really surprised. The loss of moral authority was, however, quite devastating, the general cynicism disturbing in its implications. It felt at the time like the setting of a tinderbox.

The rioting and looting, although it has spread as far north as Leeds, has not infected Scotland. But we had best not be complacent. Instead we should be frank with ourselves: the most disaffected of the marginalised in London and other English cities are young black men, of whom there are few north of the border. We specialise instead in marginalised young white men, from whom we may be hearing at some stage, perhaps as the Commonwealth Games – our own bread and circus – draws nearer.

What we are seeing is not so much a breakdown of law and order – that is merely the visible symptom – as a breakdown of trust in those set in power over us. It’s as true here as it is on Clapham Common.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.