Reading the Scottish media’s riot act

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by Paul Kavanagh

As London suffers a fourth night of street violence, looting and rioting and the disturbances have spread to other English cities, politicians across the spectrum have made their ritual condemnations and have stated the obvious.  All are shocked and horrified by the actions of a small number of criminally minded individuals.  These incidents are an appalling aberration which they utterly condemn.  “Politician condemns people who break the law” is hardly news, what with politicians being lawmakers and everything, but whenever there’s a riot it becomes news.

Yet all the condemnations and the coverage in the media miss the point.  Riots in London are commonplace, they happen all the time.  There were riots in London just a few months ago when students tore up Trafalgar Square and urinated on war memorials.  We were all outraged and shocked at the appalling aberration then too, as I seem to recall.

Clegg’s tenure as acting Prime Minister has gone as well as his leadership of the Lib Dems.  David Cameron has recalled Parliament to discuss the crisis.  Seemingly it will be solved more quickly when politicians can make their ritual condemnations all at once.  It saves time that way.  Clegg must be sick though.  He got to play at being Prime Minister for all of five minutes before the boss had to cut his holiday short.  Not that it’s being suggested that the rioting broke out when the nation collectively realised that Clegg was acting Prime Minister while Cameron was off sunning himself on holiday, although it wouldn’t surprise anyone.  

Unfortunately riots in large English cities are no aberration.  Riots in London are so commonplace that they warrant their very own category in Wikipedia.  A mere page is not enough, there’s 22 of them.  And those are just the more noteworthy riots.  Minor outbreaks don’t warrant a mention.  

Since the Brixton riots of 1981, there was a double helping of riots with riots in Brixton and Tottenham in 1985, then there have been the Poll Tax riots of 1990, the Welling riots of 1993, the 1995 Brixton riots, the Carnival Against Capitalism riot of 1999, the anti-capitalist riots in the City of London in 2000 with a repeat performance the following year, then we had the G-9 riot in 2009, the student riots last year, and in March this year the large anti-cuts demonstration that also ended in a riot.

I’m not condoning rioting.  I shouldn’t really need to say that because it’s one of those things that ought to be in the realms of the bleedin’ obvious.  But if in the course of an article about social disorder you don’t condemn mindless violence, some clown somewhere will take that as implying that you’re in favour of mindless violence.  So let’s take it as read that we all agree that looting Currys and firebombing KFC is a bad thing.

That said, riots are a well established feature of life in big cities in Europe.  The French in particular seem prone to starting a riot at the drop of a chapeau.  London is not that unusual.  Rioting is in fact such a well established feature of English civic life that the English language has the special word ‘riot’ to refer to it.  Other languages like Spanish, whose speakers are far from unfamiliar with the concept of rioting, have to make do with terms like ‘disturbio’ which literally means ‘disturbance’ and can refer to anything from burning down a shopping centre to the irritating noise made by your neighbour’s plumbing which keeps you awake at nights.  

But English has its special word riot, which means that rioting is to English speakers rather like snow is to Eskimos.  We’re so familiar with the concept we have specialised vocabulary to refer to it.*

BBC Scotland, bent on its mission to tell us we’re all part of one big (un)happy British family, keeps calling the riots “British riots”, or “riots in UK cities”.  Possibly this is intended to foster a sense of cuddly inclusivity in the Scottish viewer so we don’t feel left out.  But the term is inaccurate.  The riots are not British riots.  They’re not Welsh riots or Scottish riots, they’re not Northern Irish riots.  They’re English riots.  This lot of social disorder is quite definitely an English problem.  Despite the lurid media coverage, three nights have now passed without a single riot in Glasgow.  If nothing else this proves that Glaswegians don’t pay much attention to the news.  There is perhaps hope after all.

Had the rioting been mainly in Scottish cities, it’s a safe bet that the Scottish media would be full of editorials pontificating about the lack of maturity in Scottish society, and how this was yet more proof – if more proof were required by a dyed in the wool Unionist – that Scotland was not capable of governing itself.  Thank goodness we’ve got Westminster to look after us eh.

So where is the same commentary about England and English civic society?  Can we expect to see Glenn Campbell flying off to the USA to interview shocked Americans who’ll tell us these riots have shamed England in the eyes of the world?  Probably not.  Will the Scotsman tell us that these riots prove that England isn’t mature enough to govern itself?  Will the Telegraph publish an article saying that Westminster needs to come under the firm smack of Holyrood government and these riots are proof that England really isn’t civilised enough to govern itself and requires the sensible contribution of level headed Celts.  Don’t go holding your breath.

There won’t be a word of any of that.  This is a ‘British’ problem apparently, so it’s our problem too, even though no one in Scotland has rioted.  BBC Scotland are going overboard on a 16 year old wean who posted a message on facebook.  Sadly no one has thought to inform the good people of BBC Scotland that riots require the attendance of more than one person and virtual avatars don’t count.  And you can’t actually riot all by yourself on Facebook anyway, although some of us have tried.  I once got so fed up with the obstacles they put in the way of deleting my Facebook account that I considered firebombing my laptop. A nanosecond’s worth of thought made me realise this would have been counterproductive.  This is a nanosecond more than the thought put into BBC reporting.

Mind you, probably later this week some Scottish news outlet will publish a call from a Labour MP for a grovelling apology from Alex Salmond after it came to light that the First Minister had passed through one the riot-torn districts a week before on his way to a meeting at Westminster.  But until such time as the mainstream Scottish media can find an angle that allows them to blame English rioting on the SNP, we’ll be stuck with it being a “British problem”.

The really interesting question isn’t why Londoners and French people riot so often.  It’s why Scots don’t riot.  It can’t just be the rain.  In the 18th and 19th centuries the Scots were every bit as riot inclined as the English.  But like hooliganism at national football matches, we grew out of it.  

I can’t recall the last time there was a serious riot in Scotland, at least one which didn’t involve drunk people and Old Firm matches and I don’t think any of those ended up with people looting Currys and stealing flat screen TVs.  All throughout the severe provocations and indignities heaped upon the Scottish body politic during the Thatcher era there was nary a riot.  There was a great deal of huffing, puffing and marching, but no rioting.   We had Tommy Sheridan who’s a man who knows how to rouse a rabble, but rioting was never on the cards.  And Tommy was the last person who’d have wanted to incite one.

We are all human, and I refuse to believe a single person exists in the country who has not at some point harboured the desire to ram a handy sized object of an unforgiving nature firmly up the fundament of a self-satisfied minor official.  But to a man and woman we resist the temptation.

At this juncture I should add that wanting to kill the person who keeps calling to offer you a fantastic deal on mobile phone charges when you’re in the middle of your tea and halfway through Corrie doesn’t count.  If I’m on your jury I’ll vote for justifiable homicide and will accept your defence that you only looted the call-centre in order to stop them phoning you and interrupting Deirdre Barlow while she’s laying into Sally Webster.  Some things are Holy and Sacred after all.

Let’s be clear here.  The Scottish lack of rioting aptitude is not a bad thing.  It’s a very good thing indeed that we don’t display our displeasure with our political system by looting mobile phone shops.  All the more so because we have so much to be displeased about, given that we get the Prime Minister chosen by our neighbours and a media that insists we live in a society plagued by riots even though we never riot at all.

Yet there are those who argue that Scotland isn’t fit for independence because we’re supposedly too immature and our civil society is weak.  (Yes Tom Gallagher.  We’re looking at you.)  What our lack of rioting ability proves is the reverse, that deep down in the Scottish psyche lurks a nation that respects the rule of law and the unwritten social contract that allows life in complex modern societies to continue, on the whole, without mass outbreaks of violence.

Scottish faith in our institutions has been battered, bruised, and severely tested by generations of Westminster misrule, but it remains proudly there.  What this recent episode proves is that Scotland is more than ready for independence.  But perhaps England isn’t.

* The pedant in me feels the need to add:

  • Eskimos don’t have hundreds of words for snow.  That’s a common myth.  They have about eight, which isn’t that many more than English with snow, slush, blizzard, etc.
  • All Inuit are Eskimos, but not all Eskimos are Inuit.  Yupik people from Alaska and Siberian Eskimos are Eskimos, but they’re not Inuit.
  • I just fancied doing a footnote with bullet points about Eskimos in an article about riots in England.