In UK riots, Conservative Party rewriting doesn't wash

Iain Duncan Smith told BBC's Panorama that our recent riots were nothing to do with unemployment.

Our Work and Pensions Secretary said that joblessness was not an issue, because "these riots were not riots like the ones in the '80s. These were intensely criminal activities"

This made it sound like Duncan Smith was a bit of a fan of '80s riots, disappointed with today's version.

Was the minister suggesting that Britain had better riots when he was a lad?

Bemoaning the decline of the English riot?

Iain Duncan Smith - IDS for short - implied that today's riots were all about "street gangs" and "dysfunctional families" using disorder to cover their looting, when in the 1980s they were plucky fellows protesting about unemployment.

To believe IDS now, you have to imagine he went through the '80s chanting about "burning Babylon."

IDS is trying to dismiss the social causes of today's riots by implying he and his kind accepted the social causes of yesterday's riots.

But they didn't.

IDS's heroes did all they could to deny the economic and social roots past riots as well.

The only reason people look back to the riots of the '80s and think that unemployment was part of the problem is because nobody believed the Conservative Party, known as the Tories, then.

Nor should we now.

There is no mystery about the riots. The spark comes from perceptions of police injustice. The fuel comes from unemployment and bad conditions.

Believing that you don't have much of a future makes some people reckless about the present.

A Tory government with a cuts agenda in the middle of an economic crisis is a recipe for riots. It was in 1981, and it was in 2011.

Denying that the riots are a response to economic conditions is what Tories do, then and now.

Riots can be thuggish, violent, bullying, self-destructive responses to economic conditions. Burning people's houses or beating them, or bashing up your corner shop are all bad responses to bad conditions.

But the answer is about the economy and the state, not morality and the family.

History doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it is easy to forget that the 1981 riots involved looting and burning. This was especially true in Toxteth, but shops were also ransacked in Brixton and Wood Green. There were also vicious assaults in the 1981 and 1985 riots.

The balance between rioting and looting and the political atmosphere might be different, but the basic features were similar. The other common features were a Conservative government, an economic squeeze and aggressive policing. The final feature is Tory politicians claiming otherwise.

Thatcher stood up in Parliament on July 9, 1981, after national disorder, particularly after Toxteth, and said that it "had nothing to do with problems of bad housing and unemployment. It was a spree of naked greed."

She was asked about unemployment, but blamed lawless children.

Labour Party Member of Parliament Ron Leighton asked Thatcher "if society rejects those young people and says that it has no use for them, they are likely to reject society and act in an anti-social way."

The Iron Lady snapped back: "In the area where violence and rioting has occurred, a good deal of it has been carried out by children of school age, some of them aged between nine and 16. That has nothing whatever to do with the dole queue."

For Thatcher the riots couldn't be about bad conditions because they happened in "an area where a great deal of money has been poured in through urban programs." Enraged Liverpool Labour MP Eric Heffer called out "stupid woman" twice, and was more or less physically restrained by the Labour whip.

Even Norman Tebbit's "get on your bike" quip was an argument that riots were not fuelled by unemployment. He said that his dad in the '30s was faced with unemployment but "he didn't riot, he got on his bike and looked for work."

There was plenty of blaming "criminal elements" in the '80s as well, although more by police than politicians. According to the police, the 1985 Brixton Riot, sparked by the shooting of Cherry Groce, was about "criminal elements."

West Midlands Chief Constable Geoffrey Dear blamed the 1985 Handsworth riot on "the black criminal element." He said that drug dealers were the "people who were behind this riot, acting in defense of enormous profits. There is a criminal element that is acting for its own ends. It is attempting to create a vacuum in which drug dealers can carry on, and so can others interested in robbery and other criminal activities."

IDS's other big idea is all about culture. He imported this idea from U.S. Republicans. The 1992 Los Angeles riot involved looting, burning, inter-racial violence and attacks on small shopkeepers. Police beat and shot rioters, but rioters also beat, humiliated and killed ordinary citizens - 53 people were killed at the hands of rioters and police.

Even so, British papers including the Mail and Times used words like "revolt" or even "uprising" and accepted police violence and poverty helped prompt the ugly riot.

But one man didn't. Vice-president Dan Quayle stepped forward and started making noises like IDS. Quayle said, "I believe the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society." He especially argued that welfare payments made poor black people into feckless rioters. He spoke about a "culture of poverty," an "underclass" where gangs are "like family." Quayle called for "dismantling a welfare system that encourages dependency and subsidizes broken families."

People were wary of Quayle because of his general idiocy, including an inability to spell the word "potato." And this speech was seen as an embarrassment, especially as he argued in it that a TV comedy about a single mother was part of the moral breakdown leading to the riots. But now it seems that Dan Quayle's daftness has been reborn, and made sensible, in the mouth of IDS.

So we either stick with the Tory formula, the IDS formula and the Quayle formula, or we start changing the social conditions behind the riots.

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.

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