So, it wasn’t the gangs wot dunnit

New Home Office figures confirm that the craven attempt to blame England’s August riots on well-organised, evil gangs was pure fantasy.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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It’s rare to liken the publication of a set of UK Home Office stats to what Sigmund Freud called the return of the repressed, but the official figures which landed in the public domain on Monday were different. That’s because they were focused on the riots which erupted in several English cities back in August this year. And what gave this Home Office report its semi-Freudian character is that, until this week, those riots had virtually been driven from public consciousness, like some bad experience that we would all just rather forget about.

At the time, of course, there did not seem to be such an active forgetting in evidence. Quite the opposite. For two weeks or more, from the moment parts of Tottenham High Road in London were set alight on Saturday 6 August, the riots were the only issue being discussed in Britain. All else, be it problems in the Eurozone or phone hacking, was a sideshow. You couldn’t move for the flood of commentary, the relentless analyses, not to mention the recycled, iconic-to-be news footage. Unsurprisingly, explanations and nostrums, from politicians to pundits alike, proliferated. We were told the riots were caused by the Lib-Con coalition government’s cuts to the public sector. We were told that the rioting was an instinctive response to the inequality writ large in greedy bankers’ pay cheques. And we were told, above all, that the rioters were immersed in the gang culture that has supposedly flourished in the UK in recent years.

In fact, the one thing that united the political class around the riots was a belief in the organising, inciting role of Britain’s Blackberried-up gangs. On 11 August, Prime Minister David Cameron started the official blame game while the burnt-out ruins of shops and businesses were still smouldering: ‘Gangs were at the heart of the protests and have been behind the coordinated attack’, he said before calling for a ‘concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture’. This was the prompt for home secretary Theresa May and ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith to be appointed to a ‘gangs taskforce’, complete with de facto gangs consultant, Bill Bratton, former police chief of Los Angeles and New York. And just to show how seriously the government was taking the ‘war against gangs’, the taskforce even has its own ‘anti-riots tsar’, Louise Casey.

While Cameron was threatening the hooded menace in our midst, opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband was blaming from the same script: ‘The reasons [for the riots] are to do with gang culture which we have seen in parts of our country and we must tackle’, he said: ‘We must not have a situation where people think it is okay to go out and commit such acts as we have seen.’ Even Prince Charles revealed a striking sympathy with the then-accepted cause of the riots. ‘Half the problem’, he told a charity event, ‘is that people join gangs because it’s a cry for help and they’re looking for a sense of belonging’.

While reporters were doing insider exposés, drawing out the hierarchies and the nature of allegiances in gangs, commentators were going to town on the ‘gang culture… that has spread through Britain like a virus over the past 20 years’. A culture, that is, which ‘rejects every tenet of liberal society’, argued one columnist, before concluding that ‘it’s violent, it’s sexist, it’s homophobic and it’s racist’. Elsewhere, an Independent commentator noted ‘a deeper problem’ behind the riots, ‘the gang culture that suffuses the capital and seems to be a factor in the ongoing anarchy’. And in the Daily Mail, one writer opted for a thoroughly dystopian portrait of the gangs’ uprising: ‘The only surprise is that it took them so long. How did they not figure it out sooner? The rest of us understood. We’ve known for years. It was the dirty little secret of our inner cities. The precincts, the communal spaces, the ugly concrete jungles, it all belonged to them. They had the keys ages ago… Ultimately, the gangs will be abandoned to a pit of their own creation, robbing each other, robbing their own. That is how Detroit went. Give it time.’

And so a particular view of the riots, and its gang-driven cause, hardened into something approaching a fact. It meant that politicians could now forget about the riots. Neatly packaged-up and fully explained, the riots now had a clear cause and a taskforced solution. Nothing more needed to be said, which, given the near silence on the riots during the party-conference season, was taken literally by UK politicians.

And this is what makes the Home Office stats so traumatic for those in government who believed the riots had effectively been explained away with the repeated invocation of ‘it’s the gangs wot dunnit’. Because it clearly wasn’t the gangs wot dunnit. Of the nearly 2,000 people arrested, only 13 per cent, rising to 19 per cent in London, had any gang connections. ‘Even in London’, concluded the Home Office, ‘the great majority of arrestees were not identified as being members of gangs’. For those living in SW1, what you could hear yesterday was the sound of myths exploding throughout the Palace of Westminster. The truth is there, written in bona fide Home Office ink: well over 80 per cent of the rioters had no connection to gangs. Yes, the rioters were overwhelmingly young and, by any measure, be it eligibility for free school meals or benefits, relatively impoverished. But the rioters were not boyz in the hood.

Not that the rush to attribute the riots to a wilfully criminal minority is a surprise. As Brendan O’Neill argued in the aftermath of the riots, this attempt to blame social problems on ‘the gang’ has a history. Whether it was the pickpockets of the nineteenth century, immortalised in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s, or, indeed, the football hooligans of the 1980s, vague, loosely or barely coherent groupings have repeatedly been invested with malevolent, socially destructive intent. For those in positions of genuine power, the creation of a false power on the margins of society serves a purpose. It allows serious social problems to be glossed over and turned into the fault of ill-intentioned groups.

So it is with gangs, the breakers of Britain’s broken society (copyright Tony Blair (1993), ripped of by David Cameron). Blaming them was easy because it fitted into the narrative, peddled under New Labour and enthusiastically adopted by the coalition government, that Britain was under siege from anti-social forces, equipped with power and intent. This was the Britain of Baby P, the Britain of stab-happy youths run amok, the Britain that is broken. Yet, as the Home Office report reveals, these caricatures do not live up to reality. Instead, they deliberately miss reality. And in doing so they ignore the profound dual crisis of state authority and community solidarity of which the riots were but an expression.

Despite the initial saturation coverage and analysis of the riots, there has been little sense thus far that the government or the commentariat really know what happened during the summer. A lot of sound was involved, but very little light was shed. That’s why the August riots have this hazy, almost unreal quality, like a bad dream. There still needs to be a public reckoning. And this will involve a facing-up to a problem far more profound than any tall tales of gangs could ever hope to provide.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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