The Riots: It may be the Under-Class that did it, but it’s the Uber-Class that lost it


So, the riots have come. They had an almost inevitable quality to them – indeed last December I outlined one scenario for when they would happen (see The Great Train Wreck of 2013).

I was partly wrong about their nature and way out on the timing (I was suggesting 2013) – but that they would happen sometime seemed to me undoubted. These ‘riots’ are much smaller in numbers involved than the early 80s and much more focussed on theft and arson rather than fighting the police. I know, I was in Brixton and Clapham Junction on the nights of the riots in the early 80s and saw the large crowds attacking the police.

Let’s be immediately clear – NOTHING justifies the riots, arson, violence and looting we have seen over the past few days. I have no time for this sort of violence and I support the police coming down hard on the perpetrators. But who are they and why has this apparently so suddenly happened?

First, there are the ‘criminal element’ who are clearly taking advantage. They appear to be well organised and fairly numerous – gangs of 100+ flash-mobbing shopping areas at clearly well coordinated times and places.

Who are these people, and why are they apparently so well organised and able to be so ‘agile’ – a word that keeps cropping up in the reporting? The answer is that they are almost certainly part of a growing under-class of well organised shadow economy denizens. The shadow, or informal, sector of the economy has been steadily growing since the mid-1970s as more and more people unable, or unwilling, to make a living in the ‘stated’ economy turn to untaxed, and sometimes but not always, criminal endeavours to make ends meet.

During the ‘long boom’ from the mid 90s to 2008 the criminal element of this burgeoning shadow economy was relatively small but increasingly well organised, mainly around the illegal drugs trade but also people trafficking.

This is what policy-makers and criminal justice organisations focussed on, largely ignoring the much larger under-class living outside of the state’s purview.

It is this much larger cohort – some estimates put it at up to 10% of the working age population and even bigger amongst the youth and ethnic minorities – that provides the ‘sea’ in which the more criminal element swims. These people live partially ‘outside’ – they don’t pay income taxes, register to vote, etc. But of course they do continue to draw on education, health and other taxpayer funded services to which they largely do not contribute.

The downward pressure on jobs, wages, security, services and housing experienced by this group, and the ‘legitimate’ lower-paid population, has been immense as a result of the recession. That this ‘pressure cooker’ atmosphere might provide the ideal conditions for an outbreak of lawlessness is pretty obvious. But there is one other, massive, factor at play – ones that I’m pretty certain will be largely ignored by the media.

It is not just the ‘under-class’ that has opted out – it is also the uber-class of financiers, directors, derivatives traders, newspaper moguls and others who have decided the ‘normal rules’ don’t apply to them.

Britain has experienced a massive financial crisis brought on by greed and recklessness of epic proportions. No-one has been put on trial, much less gone to jail, for what appear to most honest and dishonest people as grand theft auto-bank. Instead, the banks have been bailed out by the tax payer, their bonuses were reduced, a little, for a while, and then everything returns to business as usual.

The banks have just been found guilty of mis-selling payment protection insurance on a truly gargantuan scale – billions of pounds worth – but is anyone going to prison for this swindle?

‘Legal’ tax avoidance is running at massive levels, with a huge grow in individuals and corporates using tax-havens to avoid paying their fair share of even the direct taxes on them that have been reduced substantially over the past 30 years.

The phone hacking scandal has revealed that some parts of the uber-class who run our media see themselves as well and truly ‘above the law’. So much so that we have just ‘lost’ the Police Commissioner for the Metropolis just a few weeks before the riots erupted. This latest decapitation of the Met – the second in three years – coupled with massive cuts to police budgets and radical reforms in process certainly won’t have done much for Police morale or leadership.

Britain has also experienced a massive spiral of wage inflation for the directorial class with top pay reaching stratospheric levels. Only last week it was also revealed that Directors of our large private institutions were continuing to gold-plate their pensions whilst stripping their workers of theirs. Many now retire on large multiples of what their staff earn for working. Inequality has surged.

And of course the parliamentary expenses scandal – very small beer compared to the above – but yet another nail in public confidence in our rulers.

A society in which the uber-class see themselves as exempt from the normal rules of taxation, cream-off ever larger personal rewards unrelated to performance, cause huge financial catastrophes, rip-off their customers see themselves as ‘above the law’ cannot expect the under-class to behave themselves.

Labour has talked recently about the ‘squeezed middle’ – there may be more truth in this than even they realised. The vast majority of ordinary people pay their taxes (more or less), obey the laws (mostly), and ‘keep calm and carry on’ even when things get rough. Are they now squeezed between two irresponsible, immoral, tax-avoiding, lawless, classes at the bottom and the top of society? If so, its fairly clear that those at the top carry far more moral responsibility for what’s happening than those at the bottom. How long before they start retreating to their gated-communities, US-style, and leave the rest of us to it?

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Communities, Parliament, Political Economy, Politics, Public Administration, Riots, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Riots: It may be the Under-Class that did it, but it’s the Uber-Class that lost it

  1. Davy Jones says:

    Well said Colin !

  2. Terrific blogpost. See also this piece on ‘a crisis in senior police leadership’: http://bit.ly/qXZcVx Has anyone else written on need for leadership training?

  3. Kevin Ambrose says:

    Very thought provoking as ever, Colin.
    I think it’s Interesting that as the Government flounders and does not know what to do – apart from usual tired invective – thousands of people have taken the initiative and within hours have formed clean up gangs. Whilst the media condemn social media for the riots, it’s the same social media (e.g. @Riotcleanup ) that’s taking action.
    Big Society in action? Now there’s one for the conspiracy theorists
    Kevin Ambrose

  4. Anne Thomas says:

    You are, of course, spot on (we’ve been saying as much for over a year). The mystery is why bringing the uber class to account is not the top item of public debate. Why do our politicians refuse to acknowledge it is the cancer that sickens us all – let alone act to deal with it. Bob Diamond takes his £6.5 bonus for ONE year and urges Cameron & Co. to stick to their cuts programme. That should be condemned by anyone who claims that we are all in this together – as part of the Big Society. Any discussion of the riots should include the message in your article.

  5. Robert Forde says:

    I was going to write this, but you have saved me the trouble. I also predicted riots recently. I am a forensic psychologist by profession, and I know a bit about criminals. To adopt the kneejerk response of “it’s all criminality” is to miss the point. The population of Tottenham (or Enfield, or the rest) were no more or less criminal a few weeks ago than in the last week, and actually most of those arrested have no criminal records (as was the case with the 1980s riots); the usual proportion of arrestees who have records is about 70%. The shooting of Mark Buddan may have sparked the riots, but a spark without a combustible mixture is just a spark, not an explosion. Mobs running off with plasma TVs may be thieves cashing in on the unrest, but mobs attacking police cars, stoning buses, and burning buildings are expressing rage. If it’s “mindless violence” it can’t also be carefully planned and orchestrated by master criminals: you can’t have it both ways. The rage is there because people see the fat cats getting away with mass robbery, and preparing for more, while they see no way to get a fair slice of the goodies and even what they do have is threatened with being reduced or removed. Youth unemployment soars while benefits are reducing or disappearing and charities providing youth and community services are going bust all over the place as government funding dries up. Councils will not step in because they are not legally obliged to provide these services, and they can’t afford to do it otherwise. Eventually, people become angry enough to just take a share by force. If we really were “all in this together” it might be avoidable, but we aren’t, and the government has made it clear repeatedly that we aren’t going to be. That’s why checks on tax fraud (annual cost £140 billion, before we even get to legal avoicance) are being reduced while checks on benefit fraud (£1.2 billion) are being increased. I don’t condone rioting, but explaining it is not excusing it, and the government should understand that too. There is no sign that they do, so expect more. Also expect more suicide, depression, and anxiety disorders, but don’t expect any more money for treatment.

  6. Pingback: A limited explanation of who or what is broken « Pabs

  7. Keith Hart says:

    “To adopt the kneejerk response of “it’s all criminality” is to miss the point.”

    No, to call it ‘criminality’ is to deny that it is the fault of the government for creating the conditions necessary for the riots in the first place!

  8. Flemming Bjerke says:

    In small scale, we have seen much the same things i Denmark, as well. Any demonstration in Copenhagen is infiltrated by angry and violent autonomous. They have burt cars, cast stones on police, etc., etc. The press focus on this has given the police great opportunities to step up the brutality of their methods and weaken protesters’ rights.

    It is so sad that we must notice that Egyptian and Serbian activists have been much more civilised than activists of our countries. They understood that they had to organise themselves so that criminals and violent elements could be tamed. Now it looks like a violence spiral may escalate in at least some Westeuropean countries.

    In my opinion, it is a very dangerous development which is fueled by the continous worsening of the under-class’ living condition (reduction of social benefits) while much is done to save the middle- and upperclass’ living conditions.

  9. Jenny Shepherd says:

    The thing is, from the list of people who’ve been charged in courts, it looks as though calling the looters the underclass is inaccurate – people from all social groups seem to have been looting and trashing the cities, from rich people to poor people.

  10. Colin Talbot says:

    @Jenny

    I agree, the ‘rioters’ and/or ‘looters’ were a complex bunch, and varied from place to place. My overall impression is that it was ‘underclass’, and often gang related, people who provided the ‘shock troops’ that actually started things – smashing into the shops. But the people looting were a much more mixed bunch, simply taking advantage of the situation. Most of those arrested actually seem to have been the less ‘street savvy’ second wave, who were there later and so more likely to get caught ‘red handed’ and were also much less proficient at disguising themselves so more likely to show up in CCTV.

    My main in point was about the moral role of the Uber class, something echoed by Peter Oborne’s piece in the Telegraph here: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100100708/the-moral-decay-of-our-society-is-as-bad-at-the-top-as-the-bottom/

  11. Jenny Shepherd says:

    I agree completely that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor – isn’t that the root meaning of ‘privilege’ – private law? And it’s really important that lots of people start pointing this out. And that it’s unacceptable. So thanks for the blog.

  12. Colin Talbot says:

    Extremely funny ‘Open Letter to David Cameron’s Parents’ on a similar theme to this post.

    http://nathanieltapley.com/2011/08/10/an-open-letter-to-david-camerons-parents/

  13. Pingback: Whitehall Watch

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