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UPDATED: August 22, 2011 NO. 34 AUGUST 25, 2011
Anarchy in the UK
Turmoil raises questions about the credibility of politicians and the police

LONDON BURNS: A shop and a police car burn as riot police tried to contain a large group of people on a main road in north London on August 6 (XINHUA/AFP)

The unrest occurring in the UK in early August was unexpected. They were the first serious urban disturbances in the UK since the Poll Tax riots in 1990. The cause of those was simple enough to understand—dissatisfaction with a new tax introduced by the government widely seen as unfair. But the riots in London, though they started because of a shooting by police of a man they thought was armed and claimed was involved in crime, escalated ominously.

For three nights, large parts of London were affected, with shops looted, cars upturned and burned, and battles between police and rioters. These soon spread to other cities in the UK, leading to the tragic deaths of three men in Birmingham on August 10. British Prime Minster David Cameron returned from his annual holiday, and parliament, usually in recess in the summer, was recalled.

The UK is living in a time of constrained growth, and has been buffeted by economic challenges since the global financial crisis of 2008. But while these recent events have been attributed to anger over government cuts, and ongoing fury at inequality in society and enormous gaps between the wealthy and the poor, that is not the only explanation. One girl, interviewed just after the unrest, said she was looting because "we can have what we want just like the rich." Others talk of an unreachable underclass, people who have no hope and have been disenfranchised by society.

Cameron spoke of "broken Britain" a lot when he was an opposition member of parliament, talking about the number of broken families, the rates of juvenile crime and the increase in the use of drugs and alcohol abuse. But his response to the riots when he returned to the UK on August 10 was blunt. "There are some parts of our society that are not just broken," he said. "They are sick."

Of the 800 arrested in London for crimes of public disorder on August 7-10, there were no easy conclusions to be drawn. One was a teaching assistant, one an army recruit, and one a university graduate. The classic model of juvenile crime is someone under 20, from a broken home, who has dropped out of school, and who has no work. None of these fitted that. The primary government response was that the majority of the unrest was down to opportunistic, lawless criminals, and that the only response was a police crackdown. The courts are now full as a result of the last few days' problems.

Once the current unrest has died down, there are hard questions to answer. One of these is the credibility of politicians and police themselves. A shop owner who had seen their business destroyed asked, "Where were the authorities when people were running amok?" Many others took law into their own hands and were forced to gang together to protect themselves.

The police have been battered in the last few weeks with accusations of corruption over the phone hacking scandal, and have been facing deep spending cuts. Their ability to respond to public concerns has never been more to the forefront. But their political masters are equally under scrutiny. While many in Britain feel the riots are a symbol of a broken society, weakened by liberal policies and a lack of firm authority, others feel those supposed to govern are more remote, more ineffective and more unresponsive than ever. This political divide is deeply worrying.

While the UK was being distracted by these disturbances, a far bigger issue, and one with far deeper implications, was unfolding in the EU and the United States. The euro zone remains beset with worries about the economies of major members. Italy is staring at the same challenges to sort its debt problems out as Greece has been. Spain is also looking perilously fragile. In the United States, months of bickering over a final budget deal were only resolved at the last minute, and only after huge compromises. Never have politicians had so many demands made of them, and never have their actions been as closely scrutinized. The most worrying thing is there is a lack of political leadership, and no real consensus on sorting this out.

If the UK's economy does go into a second recession, the probability of problems similar to those of the first week of August is likely to increase. Whatever the root causes of the events, one thing was tangible during and after their course, and that was the level of public anger. This was originally directed at bankers and financiers perceived as acting greedily during the original economic crisis. It has now turned to politicians, who are seen as ineffective, bickering and self-serving. Cameron is governing in an unusual way (as part of a coalition), and at a unique time. It is still far from certain he is up to the job. More disturbing, it is unclear who might be able to do better.

The author is a senior research fellow with Chatham House, London

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