Saturday, August 13, 2011


One newspaper report in respect of the riots which has gone largely unnoticed is this one from the Times:

"the whole of South London was panic-stricken by the report that a large body of unemployed rioters were on their way to the Borough and Newington Causeway from New Cross and Deptford, smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road."

In fact, the article is from 1886. That riot has parallels with last week's. Against a backdrop of global recession and rising unemployment, the anger and hopelessness that had been bubbling up for years erupted. In 1886, "
masses of the poor devils of the East End who vegetate in the borderland between working class and Lumpenproletariat" (in Engels' words) met the leaders of the revolutionary Social Democratic Federation who high-handedly tried to channel their energies into something political. But the "roughs and 'Arrys" were having none of it: "on the road [from Trafalgar Square to Pall Mall] the roughs took matters into their own hands, smashed club windows and shop fronts, plundered first wine stores and bakers' shops, and then some jewellers' shops also, so that in Hyde Park our revolutionary swells had to preach "le calme et la modération"!

Engels was scathing of the revolutionaries - "
literary and political adventurers" he called them - but he was one of the many writers at that time who saw that indistinct violence was an inevitable consequence of the dreadful living conditions in East London. "The distress," he wrote in a letter to August Bebel in February 1886, "especially in the East End of the city, is appalling. The exceptionally hard winter, since January, added to the boundless indifference of the possessing classes, produced a considerable movement among the unemployed masses."

concern was shared by many bourgeois commentators and politicians. Around this time, Lord Salisbury set up a Royal Commission to investigate the issue of housing for the working classes. The Commission itself was an extraordinarily motley crew made up of Tory and Liberal politicians, the Archbishop of Westminster and Bishop of Bedford, a Trade Union leader and the Prince of Wales (subsequently Edward VII). One of the Liberal politicians was Jesse Collings, who has a connection with Ipswich politics (on which, more soon).

Out of the Royal Commission came the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885, which gave landlords a statutory responsibility to ensure sanitary housing, and gave Local Authorities the power to demolish unhealthy slums. One of the first Local Authorities to assert this power was the London County Council. The Friars Mount slum in Bethnal Green had become notorious when Arthur Morrison used it as a barely fictionalised backdrop to A child of Jago. The LCC began demolition of the slum in 1893, and by 1900 they had completed the building of the world's first ever social housing programme: the Boundary Estate round Arnold Circus. The rubble from the slums was famously used to build the bandstand in the middle of the estate.

Yet equally famously, of the 5,000 new flats, only 11 were occupied by evicted slum dwellers. The rest were moved on to other slums in Dalston and Hackney. It took a World War nearly twenty years later for slum-clearance and the construction of good Council housing nationwide to become a statutory duty for Local Authorities.

It is difficult to predict such a progressive outcome to rise from the ashes of last week's riots. One cannot see David Cameron asking one of his cabinet ministers to chair a Royal Commission; one cannot see it comprising backbench MPs, Rowan Williams, Dave Prentice or Prince Charles; and one cannot see it seriously trying to find anything out about the working class experience. The government sees little to be gained from launching an enquiry. It would rather turn a blind eye to the causes, although its blundering attempts to appear tough have made it look ridiculous and has earned opprobrium from the police.

Whereas Salisbury and his colleagues knew that reform was necessary to revive British trade, politicians today can see no way out of the neoliberal hole. They see Britain's position in the world and its social fabric going to hell in a handbasket, but they can do nothing about it, only trot out the same tired cliches about personal responsibility, call in the LAPD and pitch up in Clapham waving a broom. But as this excellent piece at the University for Strategic Optimism points out,

"Art and brooms isn’t going to fix this particular problem however, only the radical redistribution of wealth and a society not defined around the individual accumulation of property is going to do that. It’s not 1940, the destruction of the urban fabric is not wrought by foreign bombs, but by kids from the broom-brigade’s own neighbourhoods. They can pretend to pick up a few bits of litter for the cameras, but that is a fact that can not be wiped away so easily."


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