The role of politicians in the cause of the riots

During the week, The Independent covered one of the most interesting pieces of work that has come out on the causes of the riots. It’s a piece of research that was released earlier in August from a group of researchers at Essex and Royal Holloway Universities:

Lack of trust in politicians was a significant factor behind the riots that erupted in England this month, according to a major academic research project.

Although poverty and lax moral values played a part in people’s decision to join the disturbances, a stronger influence was their attitude towards politicians…

According to the report, “There will be burning and a-looting tonight,” politicians are seen as “a class apart” who abide by their own rules. It warns that tough measures to punish rioters such as withdrawing their state benefits –backed by Conservative ministers– are likely to backfire. Such penalties could “further alienate some sections of society from the public realm” and “only serve to compound the problem of public disorder rather than addressing it.”

The authors say political factors behind the riots could include “middle class looting” by bankers in the financial crisis as well as the MPs’ expenses scandal. They may have “made it more acceptable for everyone else to ‘take’ what they wanted, when they wanted it.” Another factor could be mistrust of the police, creating “alienation.”

The research, based on opinion polls and focus group discussions, was underway before the riots but provides a unique insight into the minds of those who took to the streets. Data about people’s general willingness to break the law were analysed to test the three most common explanations for the riots.

“People’s disposition towards state institutions weigh more heavily in shaping their propensity to obey the law than their belief systems and personal values,” the report concludes. “This finding has obvious and considerable implications for the question of how best to respond to the riots. If people’s willingness to abide by laws laid down by the state is compromised by their jaundiced view of state institutions and their mistrust of political elites, an effective response will have to address political engagement in general and the perceived ‘looting’ of state resources by those at the top in particular.”

(As an aside, it’s not exactly unknown for journalists to misrepresent academic research or even – far worse in many ways – for the press release put out about academic research to misrepresent the very research it is promoting. In this case, checking through the original report, the press release and the Independent’s coverage they all seem to have fairly represented each other and it’s notable that where the Indy’s language could have slipped into using words that exaggerate what the research was saying, it doesn’t. One caveat though – the research was started before the riots and was looking at the ethical behaviour of politicians, so there is a risk of bias in it finding that such behaviour mattered given that was what it was looking for in the first place.)

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22 Comments

  • Sadie Smith 1st Sep '11 - 3:14pm

    Um. That sounds far too easy a reason.

  • Its conclusions fit with my understanding of the nature of discontent in the Country re: banker, politicians, mistrust of the police, etc. The sense of anger is well justified, in my opinion.

    Of interest is the description of relative poverty as opposed absolute poverty. Former mining areas of the north/midlands/south wales are almost certainly more deprived than inner city london, yet there was no rioting in such areas (and the further from London the less rioting occurred in major cities, e.g. sheffield, leeds, newcastle, edinburgh, glasgow), The poor in London, however, have to live cheek-by-jowl with more extreme wealth and when that wealth is perceived to be unfairly gained (bankers and politicians) then anger is understandable.

  • I don’t think it is just the politicians but they maybe part of the problem. Many of us will have heard, you politicians are all the same, liars, don’t keep your promises, only in it for yourselves, sadly for a minority it is true. Regrettably politicians are now bracketed with Bankers and Media moguls

  • @ Andrew Tennant
    You said:
    ‘The disgraceful fact is that some unrepentant criminals think the state is more responsible for their actions than they are. No-one forced these people to make the choices they did, and no-one chose the lives for them that they lead but themselves.’

    After reading your comment it occurred to me that I wasn’t clear who you meant when you said:
    ‘some unrepentant criminals’

    To acquire a free Flat Screen TV, the rioters went through a plate glass window.
    To acquire a free Flat Screen TV, the MP’s put it on their expense sheet.

    One was criminal, and the other?

  • “it seems the courts agree with me, but you’re welcome to make your own choice.”

    The reason the courts agree with you has nothing to do with the violence; it is because they protect the powers that be.

    Besides, MPs didn’t limit their wealth-taking behaviour to TVs. More importantly, they made tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds from property speculation using rules on expenses that were made by MPs and capitalising on the tax laws that are also made by………………………. MPs. If the corruption was just limited to TVs then it wouldn’t have been much of a problem. The looters weren’t able to make up their expense rules and tax law in the same way that MPs can.

  • I doubt the public see it your way, which is basically what the report says.
    If the object is to get a free flat screen TV, the level of ‘dishonesty’ is in the eye of the perpetrator. The ‘greater’ of the crimes is not the issue.

    Some rioters got caught, some got away with it. Some MP’s got caught; some wheedled their way out of it.

    Moving the argument on, how about this for an idea?
    When nurses, policemen etc. next ask for a pay rise, we tell them no sorry, you can’t have one. But we’ll give you an expenses allowance similar to the one MP’s enjoy. That way they can ‘improve’ their income tax free and ‘off the salary structure’?
    Flat Screen TV’s all round!

    It’s sad that you still don’t get it.
    Will you see the next insurrection as ‘out of the blue’ and unexpected?
    I just see a clock ticking.

  • “People will just simply despair that all politicians look either ridiculous at best or corrupt at worst,”

    The words of Nick Clegg in May 2009

    Just after he put in his claim for gardening, decorating and furniture at £23,083

    Nice if you can get it!

  • The report puts cart before horse (and sounds politically motivated). The behaviour of politicians over expenses and the behaviour of city-boys raping companies, and the behaviour of rioters knicking TVs are all symptomatic of the same malaise in modern culture – the “Me, ME… NOW!” culture. They are all criminal, and indeed many of the of all 3 classes have gone to jail as a result. Good.

  • I believe there is some credence to this explanation. Below is a comment I made here on 11 August, perhaps reposts are not always welcome but I believe it is pertinent to article above…

    I do believe the cuts to youth service, sure start, EMA and others are factors but not sufficient alone to explain what is a very multi-factorial situation. An angle that is perhaps underplayed (maybe politicians don’t want to face up to it?) is the utter breakdown of many younger people’s respect for the establishment/authority. This is something that once but no longer ceases to shock me as a teacher in a south london school, many youths have an absolute disdain for the establishment …. politicians lining their pockets, police corruption, police stop and search, bankers gambling with futures (teachers … who knows what they think). And what is done to sort out Britains problems? Ask the young and poor to share the cost. You may think these views are unfair or a narrow view but that is their view and in this instance perception is reality. This mentality creates a lack of fear/respect which allied to a colective ‘f*ck you’ attitude is highly combustible.

  • Sounds like the collapse of organised religion has had consequences after all. People’s morality is dependent on their belief that the state is benevolent? Much better we get them believing in God.

  • Keith Browning 2nd Sep '11 - 9:49am

    Charles – the most actively religious sections of society also cause the most problems – discuss !!

    Atheists and agnostics are rarely part of the problem.

  • The report is just a long-winded way of saying “people who don’t respect the law are more likely to break it” which is so obviously true it’s almost tautologous.

    The important question we need to answer is, “so what now?”

  • Keith Browning
    “Atheists and agnostics are rarely part of the problem.”

    In UK or global terms?

  • IMc, asks a very important question.
    (The important question we need to answer is, “so what now?”)

    People tend go in the direction that they see as their best interests. (obviously!) And their best interests are a sub-routine of how they see the wider economy, and their place in it.

    So, where do they believe the wider economy is now, and is headed?
    Where do YOU think the wider economy is headed?

    1. The economy has just stalled; it will soon be back on track?
    2. The economy has flat lined; we are looking at 20 years of Japanese style stagnation?
    3. The economy is in a decline; the best years of the economy are behind us, and we must adjust and adapt our lives, education and community around the descent in lifestyle?

    Each of the above (and similar beliefs), are reasonable assumptions. But the one you believe in will determine which way you feel the ‘tiller’ needs to be pulled to correct the course
    .
    My belief is somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd analysis. Your belief is of course just as important as mine. But we must all dig deep and truly identify what is happening.

    I think new technology will bring us many exciting things, but I fear our wholehearted reliance on technology is a Panglossian utopia, that will trick us into spending an inordinate amount of time and money on gleaming, high tech bridges to nowhere
    .
    You may feel that the 3rd analysis is simply not on the horizon. But can we take that chance with the future of our young? We have to design and build what people need, and a few low tech skills of the kind our grandmother and grandfather took for granted, would broaden our base, and increase our resilience in the years ahead, no matter which of the above you believe.

  • Lack of trust in politicians was a significant factor behind the riots that erupted in England this month, according to a major academic research project.

    People decided to steal from Currys and Footlocker because they thought MPs expense claims were excessive!?

  • DavidB, I’m betting on option 2: The economy has flat lined; we are looking at 20 years of Japanese style stagnation.

    Or I would do, if I didn’t think it quite likely that the eurozone is going to fall apart.

  • So does this mean people in Wales (no riots or looting) don’t have a problem with MPs’ expenses?

    Are we more religious? Are we awash with things for young people to do? Jobs for all?
    Hardly.
    Plenty of sink estates round here where no one respects the police or authority and no one’s had a job in three generations or expects to get one or made any effort to learn anything at school because it was boring and they didn’t see the point.
    But no one trashed anything last month.

    A protest in London was jumped on by those who’d jump on any excuse for trouble. And people in a handful of cities around a few bits of England decided they could get away with it as well.

    To draw any conclusions about the riots as generalisations is absurd when 99% of the country didn’t riot at all and those places that did are fairly random.

    All these excuses about bankers and so on sound like “blame everyone else but me for stealing that telly”. And are an insult to the millions of people who didn’t burn anyone out of their business or home.

  • @ad
    “People decided to steal from Currys and Footlocker because they thought MPs expense claims were excessive!?”

    People stole from Currys and Footlocker because the people they live next door to have ended up very wealthy by committing massive mortgage fraud, fiddling their expenses (and creating a taxation regime that favours those with wealth and penalises those that work) and through unearnt inheritance. Their logic is the same as the others that take from society without giving anything back. To describe the expense claims as ‘excessive’ is offensive to a large proportion of the population who regard the amount MPs lined their pockets with (hundreds of thousand in some instances) as being a fortune. In addition, the damage caused by the riots is insignificant compared to the damage done to the economy and peoples’ lives by the City.

    @cassie
    “To draw any conclusions about the riots as generalisations is absurd when 99% of the country didn’t riot at all and those places that did are fairly random. ”

    The majority of the rioting and the most serious rioting took place in London, where wealth inequalities are the most extreme. This is precisely the relative poverty the report talks about (that is far greater in London than in Wales).

    “All these excuses about bankers and so on sound like “blame everyone else but me for stealing that telly”. And are an insult to the millions of people who didn’t burn anyone out of their business or home.”

    They aren’t excuses. Nobody is condoning their actions. Similarly, I don’t condone the behaviour (that I regard as being far worse) of the MPs and bankers. I didn’t burn anyone out of their business or home and I am a hard-working, law-abiding citizen. I am not insulted (at the attempts to understand the cause of the riots and the actual evidence presented in the report above), so your statement simply isn’t true, so please do not pretend to speak on my behalf.

    @MBoy
    “They are all criminal, and indeed many of the of all 3 classes have gone to jail as a result. Good.”

    I don’t know of any bankers that have gone to jail for their fraud. Only a very few of the politicians who lined their own pockets have gone to prison. It is this inequality of justice that helps provide oxygen for the break down in law and order and the fact that crazy sentences are being handed out by the courts for the rioting (6 months custodial sentence for a first offence of stealing £3.50 of water) that increases the probability of more rioting in the near future.

  • “People will just simply despair that all politicians look either ridiculous at best or corrupt at worst,”

    The words of Nick Clegg in May 2009

    Just after he put in his claim for gardening, decorating and furniture at £23,083

    Please tell me this isn’t true?

  • Riots ? Flash Mobs?
    Call it what you will. But you can be certain that you will not get everything you need for a full understanding from only BBC output.

    Hope these links work. They are a very interesting insight.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bHyug2PvpB8

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=s4uvn8vOWr0

    (If they don’t work directly, copy and paste into your browser)

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