London Mayor Boris Johnson carries a broom in Clapham Junction, in south London August 9, 2011 after rioting swept through London for three consecutive nights. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
Artillery Row

The England riots: Ten years on

Did we learn any lessons?

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the commencement of the 2011 England riots. Sparked by the lethal police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, North London, thousands of people rioted in cities and towns across the country. There was mass deployment of police for the riots, which saw looting, arson, assaults and the deaths of five people. By 10 August 2011, more than 3,000 arrests were made by the police, with nearly 2,000 people issued with criminal charges related to the riots. An estimated £200 million worth of property damage was incurred, with local economic activity — which in many cases was already struggling due to the recession — being significantly compromised.

The riots unsurprisingly sparked a wave of debates among political leaders, social actors, and academic figures about their causes and the wider context. Attributions to this fundamental breakdown in law and order included social factors such as racial tensions, social-class divides, economic decline, and sustained unemployment. 

Lammy was not always an attention-seeking opportunist in our race-relations conversation

One of the most enlightened contributors to the post-riots national discussion was current Labour Party shadow justice secretary and identitarian-in-chief David Lammy. He was not always an attention-seeking opportunist in our race-relations conversation. He was once a serious politician who showed great courage in taking on sensitive issues. A sound voice during the London riots, which took place a decade ago this week, Lammy emphasised the destructive effects of long-term worklessness. He stressed that meaningful employment provides a sense of self-worth and structure, and lies at the heart of responsible fatherhood in working-class communities. Indeed, in the early 2010s Lammy spoke a great deal about fatherlessness and a lack of responsible male role models in the communities he knew. He feared that this was fuelling youth violence in London. Back then, he managed to blend a strong commitment to social fairness with an honest family-oriented traditionalism. This was ultimately why he was my favourite British politician in the early years of adulthood. At a September 2011 Policy Exchange event which included Lammy, recent Conservative Party London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey advanced the view that the riots were a by-product of an unhealthy liberal political agenda where there had been “a constant ramming home of what your rights are” to the detriment of personal responsibility and civic duty. 

Leading Black figures in England — specifically London — had offered insightful thoughts into the socio-economic and socio-political dynamics which surrounded the 2011 London riots. How did the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and our governing political classes react to the mass social disruption? The government of the day set up the Riots, Communities, and Victim’s Panel, which was given the role of exploring the key causes of the riots and how local communities can be socially and economically resilient to prevent future disorder. The Panel explored the impact of high levels of deprivation, crime and unemployment on local communities, and the challenges this poses in reaching those families that require strong multi-agency support. The UK Government published a full report in response, welcoming the panel’s findings and recommendations which chimed with its “ambition to strengthen socially responsible attitudes, public-service reform and economic resilience.” The Government pledged to take on board the Panel’s emphasis on cultivating a sense of social responsibility, supporting families at risk of breakdown, and boosting young people’s educational outcomes and employment prospects.  

England cannot afford to be complacent over the risk of a repeat of the 2011 Summer riots unfolding in the near future

The unfortunate reality of the matter is that many of the underlying social and economic causes of the 2011 England riots remain largely unaddressed. England continues to be an international hotspot when it comes to family breakdown and weak intergenerational bonds. Warnings continue to be issued by organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) on the importance of stable family structure for a range of youth outcomes — such as school attainment, cognitive development, and mental well-being. In my own research, I have found that even after controlling for a range of variables, self-reported childhood family stability is significantly associated with current-day life satisfaction in the adult population. 

It is high time that families are restored at the heart of social policy. This includes understanding the economic and social pressure on households — what the recently-published Sewell report refers to as “family strain”. There needs to be greater public investment in local social infrastructures which can provide much-needed support services for parents in more materially-deprived localities. In the sphere of employment, more family-friendly arrangements should be promoted in our country — one that does not fare well on this front in the industrialised world. Perhaps the country’s trade unions should focus more on this as opposed to obsessing over niche identitarian initiatives. And while it may be an unfashionable suggestion, the UK Government should also do more in terms of supporting male-led social projects which promote a message of personal responsibility, family duty, and self-discipline in local communities with traditionally high rates of fatherlessness and criminal activity. 

Nearly six in ten Black Brits believe the local police treats them unfairly

England cannot afford to be complacent over the risk of a repeat of the 2011 Summer riots unfolding in the near future. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in our nation has seen the explosion of racial-grievance politics and the intensification of anti-authority sentiments. Nearly six in ten Black Brits — a population heavily concentrated in inner-city London — believe the local police treats them unfairly on the grounds of their race. During the pandemic between October and December 2020, Black youth unemployment broke the 40 per cent barrier. According to recent ONS data, 63 per cent of Black Caribbean-origin dependents aged up to 15 years live in lone-parent households. To put this in perspective, the corresponding figure for their Indian-origin peers is only 6 per cent. This toxic mixture of unstable family structures, social rootlessness, economic insecurity, and distrust of authority, is simply not a sustainable state of affairs. 

There are plenty of reasons to suggest that one major incident involving a Black individual and a public institution such as London’s Metropolitan Police, could well spark a level of nationwide social disorder not too dissimilar to the 2011 England riots. There is a great deal of work to be done.

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