A great Sunday essay on this week’s riots and why their name matters from Jennie Kermode. Jennie is an author, journalist, activist and creative artist and tweets at @jennie_kermode. She is also Chair of Trans Media Watch and Content Director of Eye for Film. Oh and blogs too.
In parallel with the evolution of the recent riots, there has been an evolution in the names applied to them. At first they were Tottenham riots, then London riots; then, when trouble began to flare in Birmingham and Liverpool, people there protested that what was happening in their cities wasn’t being taken seriously enough, and the labels UK riots and British riots appeared. Subsequently, Alex Salmond led calls for this label to be changed to England riots, to reflect the fact that no Scottish or Welsh cities were experiencing the same unrest. But is this a lot of fuss over nothing, or does it reflect something more than regional worries and national pride?
“One of the dangers we face in Scotland is copycat action,” said Salmond on BBC Radio Scotland. He’s right, but couldn’t the same be said of anywhere in the UK? Or even abroad? There lies the rub. Nobody seriously thinks that riots like these would be likely to spread across British borders, even if they believe that they are purely criminal in origin. Why not? Well, the French aren’t going to riot just because the English do. Then why would the Scots? Ah…
It looks so simple on the surface, but look deeper and a plethora of difficult questions arise. Fortunately, despite Boris Johnson’s conviction that we don’t need sociological explanations (Heaven forbid we ask people who spend their lives studying this sort of thing!) there are few things about riots that we can say with relative certainty. One of these is that a riot cannot develop without a core sense of group identity. This shouldn’t be confused with political identity – it doesn’t mean the riot needs to have a higher purpose – but in essence it means rioters have to believe that when they go out onto the streets planning violence there will be others there wanting to do the same thing. Rioting alone would be a pretty miserable endeavour. This isn’t simply about the notion of safety in numbers, the belief that it’s possible to evade detection in a crowd – it’s about the way our brains realign themselves such that, temporarily, we behave according to a different set of rules. It becomes morally comfortable to riot because everybody else is doing it.
That’s the way it works on the ground. At a distance, it becomes more complicated – we don’t identify with people in the same way when we can’t see, hear or smell them. So whilst it’s easy to see how a riot in Tottenham can spread out into nearby boroughs, it’s harder to see how it can jump to other cities – or even across London. Some observers have called these the first ever decentralised riots. It might be more accurate to say that they are the first geographically decentralised riots; where they find their centre is in the media (both formal and social). But key to this is a need for rioters in different areas to identify with one another, to feel that they are part of the same phenomenon even if they are not part of the same gang.
That Londoners – especially those from deprived areas – would identify with other Londoners in the same situation is straightforward enough. It’s not a big surprise that Birmingham found itself in trouble, and the same can be said of Manchester, especially after a quiet night during which the media kept stressing that Manchester would probably be next. There is some cultural overlap with Nottingham, another city with big wealth disparities. But why, with the exception of Liverpool, did the riots get no further north?
It’s not that there was no potential for trouble in Scotland. A sixteen year old was arrested in Glasgow for trying to incite unrest online. A group of young people in Edinburgh started a Facebook group in which they talked about how cool it would be to burn some stuff and do a bit of looting in their city. A friend of mine found four eight year olds round the back of her house kicking over bins and claiming they were rioting, but they were promptly distracted with a football. “If folk try it up here, we’ll set about them,” Glaswegians joked. Why didn’t grown-ups take all this more seriously – seriously enough to join in?
Perhaps the key lies in that band of northern English cities that resisted the lure. Speaking to people in Newcastle, I’ve found them perplexed by the whole business; it’s an odd phenomenon from their perspective, and certainly not one they can relate to. Do they have a different identity, as northerners, that makes it seem alien? There was some agreement with this. It certainly isn’t that their city lacks deprived areas or gang culture. Then there’s Sheffield, whose diverse immigrant population is not altogether successfully integrated. It features stark wealth inequality and youth unemployment is high, but again, no riots.
What Newcastle and Sheffield both have is a strong sense of civic identity and individual character. If you’re from Newcastle, you’re a Geordie, and being English – even if you’re still proud of it – usually comes second. Perhaps this is enough to make the difference. It’s a theory that becomes more convincing as we find out more about the rioting in London – as we discover, for instance, that much of the worst violence was committed by people travelling in from elsewhere to join the existing groups, rather than angry young people smashing up their own neighbourhoods. It was destruction in the context of a shared identity, but it wasn’t self-destruction.
So what about those names? It is entirely credible that using the term England riots (not English riots, which could imply that the violence had its roots in the English character) could help Scottish and Welsh people to look upon them as a remote phenomenon, not something to identify with and therefore not something to emulate. Salmond is probably correct in his suggestion that rioting exclusively in Scottish cities would never be referred to as British, and quite right – in such an instance it would be just as important to discourage cross-border spread.
Just as civic pride can protect cities like Newcastle and Sheffield, a sense of collective pride in our nation can protect Scotland at such a time. This is positive nationalism (with a small ‘n’) and it doesn’t require thinking less of the English, simply observing that they have been unfortunate and we are not going to be the same. We may have our own problems with violence, we may have sectarian issues and gangs, but as a rule we do not take out our frustrations en masse on the streets. In fact this has only happened thrice in modern Scots history, and not since 1919. That’s a distinction which, just now, is worth making an effort to maintain.
Using the label England riots does not mean turning our backs on the English in their time of need. We can still express concern and support (many of us, of course, have friends and relatives down there and a personal stake in this), and we can still offer practical assistance. But to directly associate ourselves with the riots is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. This ought to be a straightforward matter. It’s a shame that it has been politicised, as if every aspect of our relationship with our neighbours has to be political.
Perhaps it’s only when we cease to attach so much moral weight to the identification of difference that we shall truly be able to live as happy neighbours, celebrating the good things about each of our cultures and providing unquestioned support when things go wrong.