I cycled home early on Tuesday night, keen to avoid the hassle of road closures more than from a fear of being personally looted, and as I pedalled away from central London I noticed that most of the city was doing the same. Commuters were drifting to tube stations in ones and twos; grates had been pulled down over fragile shop windows; door signs had been flipped to Closed. It was a sunny August evening (a rare event in this London summer of ours) and the beer gardens of Hackney were all but empty – you know something’s gone seriously awry when Londoners don’t even gather for a drink.
We were doing a collective duck and cover, heading for home and bolting the front door firmly afterwards. And as I realised this I felt a sense of… not fear or even anger really, but of disappointment about how wrong the situation was. How the city that I was born in and love was seriously out of sorts. How London is not itself.
The last time I can remember feeling anything similar, indeed the last time I’ve ever witnessed London come under attack in this way (being a mid-80s child with no real memory of Brixton or the IRA) was the 7/7 bombings. I remember opening the newspaper and seeing the faces of multicultural London smiling out at me from a double-page spread of victims, and thinking how misplaced the attack was. How the bombing of a tolerant city like ours was a case of mistaken identity. An aberration. And I remember the same feeling of despair amongst Londoners, drifting home to close their doors behind them and turn to whatever political doctrine could make them feel a little bit better.
But this time was different of course, because the city was being attacked by its own. The next generation of Londoners had literally set about dismantling the fabric of their existence. Speaking to stunned friends in New York (a city that seems to have found some lasting solidarity from the trauma of attack), they couldn’t get their heads around the mentality of what was going on.
But Londoners need to get their heads around it. These are not easy riots to understand of course. The press has been quick to turn to terms like “nihilism” and “anarchy”, but deep-rooted political theories are not born out in what we’ve seen in the last week. It’s hard to have lost belief in the working of the state, the world, the universe and everything, but still believe in the value of a pair of Nikes.
These riots will be remembered as shop-looting, where children as young as 10 are found trying on clothes for size in JD Sports, or cooking themselves a hamburger in McDonald’s. It’s not a political statement against multinationals (small businesses have been hit on an unprecedented scale) and it’s not a desperate grab for survival – stocks of bread and butter have been left undented. It’s a bunch of children going out and taking exactly what they want.
The authoritarian approach of “they’re criminals, bang ‘em up” is a lazy shortcut that will lay the seeds of disaster in the long term. What I think we’ve had a glimpse of for the first time is the underbelly of a generation raised by brands and popstars, fed on a diet of caffeine and MTV, without feeling any real connection to the state or a universal set of values. It must be unsettling for David Cameron to see just how Big his Big Society can get, especially when his understanding of the term seems to be Big cuts in expenditure and Big cuts in corporate taxes without any Big increases in inclusion or any Big changes in equality.
Londoners need to unbolt their doors, come out blinking into the bright light of day, and ask whether this path we’re heading down is really one we want to be part of. Once the dust has settled and the billions of pounds worth of damage and loss of earnings has been calculated, there are far bigger questions still to answer.