Earlier this summer London, along with many of Britain’s other large cities, was transformed into a ‘war-zone’ as rioters and looters ran amok and the police struggled to contain the disorder. For those in Britain who thought large-scale public disorder was a problem that happened in other countries, it came as a real shock. It was obviously a surprise to the police as well, whose initial response and tactics (probably due to limited available resources) failed to bring the situation under control. Since then there has been a steady stream of comment on the causes and effects of the riots, and a wide range of responses from politicians and the media. Four months on and a joint report by the Guardian newspaper and the LSE shows that we’re still trying to learn the lessons of the riots – a process that will undoubtedly go on for many years.
What the responses also highlight are the vastly differing views of those on the right and left wings of British politics. The Prime Minister’s immediate response was to brandish the riots as “criminality, pure and simple“. His view was that rioters were simply criminals, and attempted to push through laws that would ban rioters from using social networking sites, strip them of benefits, see them evicted from council properties, and face much tougher custodial sentences. The pressure on the courts resulted in some extraordinary sentences, and stories abounded throughout August of rioters jailed for stealing bottles of water, two left shoes, and other disproportionately insignificant items. The message was simple – these individuals have made the choice to engage in criminal behaviour; they are therefore criminals, and should be treated accordingly.
The response from the Left was altogether different, with the Guardian publishing the ‘Reading the Riots‘ report which aimed to answer why the riots occured in the first place. A quick glance at the headlines shows that the riots can be blamed on any combination of the following factors: disenfranchised youth, a sense of injustice (against society, the rich, or the police), unemployment, or humiliating ‘stop and search’ policies. I haven’t read it in enough detail to know whether the Guardian report actually blames the rioters themselves, but if it does it’s clearly not a primary finding or focus. I also note that a ‘sense’ of injustice is always useful, conveniently not needing any actual evidence to self-justify criminal behaviour. Obviously this report hasn’t gone down well with the right-wing commentators such as Philip Johnston in the Telegraph, who has taken a special disliking to the idea that rioters might be victims too, whilst Winston Smith in the Mail was horrified that backward laws meant the country couldn’t imprison more children. Meanwhile the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers told the Telegraph he thought the idea of actually asking offenders why they committed crimes was ‘ironic’.
What I believe all these articles tell us is that lots of people find it challenging to understand that the points of view of both the left and the right are relevant and valid. It baffles me that many commentators seem unable to grasp the notion of both individual and collective responsibility, and hold this in tension. Yes we need a clear, effective, proportional, and consistently enforced system of consequences when people break the law. Committing an illegal act is ultimately a personal choice, for which there is no excuse, and legal ramifications should follow. It also makes perfect sense (and I do not see how these this can be contradictory) to seek to understand what might lead people to the position where they are likely to, or feel the need to, break the law, in case there’s something we can do about it to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In the same way that both prevention and cure work hand in hand to create effective healthcare, mitigating the causes of rioting as well as punishing those who do riot would seem like a logical policy objective.
This isn’t a policy that can be claimed by the left or right wing, and neither is it about finding a ‘centre-ground’. It’s about trying to move forward from a troubling event in the most constructive and positive way we can. Throwing children into jail is unlikely to ensure them, or society in general, a better future. But neither is making excuses for them and allowing them to blame someone else. Psychologists through the ages have known and taught that acknowledging responsibility for your own actions is the first step to achieving personal change. We would also do well to remember and explore the complex personal, social, and cultural factors that make it more likely that people will make wrong decisions in the first place.
- “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason”
- Thomas Payne, 'Common Sense'