Whoever said that the British liked queueing?

Riots that occur through need are being replaced by their opposite: riots of unsatisfied excess
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This, perhaps, is how it will all end. Not with a bang, nor even a whimper, but with a mighty conflagration created by customers seeking double futons, Swedish loungers and birch veneer desk-and-drawer sets (perfect for homework!) at bargain prices.

The news from Edmonton in north London seems extraordinary enough - thousands of shoppers going berserk at midnight, cars abandoned on the North Circular, ambulances called out to treat people who have collapsed from heat exhaustion, six hospitalised including a man who was stabbed during the melée - but, like most stories of its type, it will soon be forgotten. Only at some later point will historians look back and notice the wider significance of the Great Ikea Riot of 2005.

For the moment, it would be wrong to take too negative a view of these events. Overnight, a particularly irritating national stereotype has been dented, perhaps even demolished entirely. No longer will hacks, bores, bigots and lazy comedians be able to portray the English as dreary, anaemic, sheep-like people who actually enjoy standing, dead-eyed and slack-jawed, in a queue.

News of London's Ikea Riot has been broadcast across the world. "One Stabbed in UK Store Opening Riot" reads a headline in the South African News. In Kazakhstan, the story goosed up a quiet day, in which the second lead was an item headed "The Quiet Revolution of the Kazakhstani Manager". It is good to think of people all over the globe, in towns and villages, at wells and watering holes, as they thank their own particular god that they are not obliged to live among a people who stab each other for a reduced Myson Lätt quilt. Now the world can see the English as they really are: proud, passionate and ferocious when someone dares to stand between them and a desirable piece of domestic furniture.

The sorrowful Ikeacrat who appeared on the Today programme to intone his apologies will have provoked many a hollow laugh from those who have suffered in one his company's hellish stores. How many lives have been blighted by this organisation? How many marriages have foundered in its corridors or among the debris of a flat-pack item, scattered in despair across the floor of a kitchen? The Ikea experience, from being jostled along by a lowing herd of panicking shoppers to the doomed attempt to make sense of instructions, might have been devised by a sadistic scientist who wanted to see how much stress a human relationship can take before it cracks.

None of this can surely be an accident. A couple of years ago, when I wrote about being arrested and interrogated for carrying a newspaper in a Somerfield supermarket, a woman wrote to me recounting a similar experience at Ikea. Alone and with a baby, she received the full force of the shop staff's bullying techniques for disobeying instructions to customers. Her crime had been to walk around the store in the opposite direction to the one indicated.

Who could be surprised that, eventually, customers in London would rise up in revolution? There is a limit to how much members of a hot-blooded nation are prepared to take.

All the same, it would be unfair to place the blame for what happened at Edmonton entirely upon the shoulders of ruthless executives working for a Swedish multinational. It seems more than likely that we shall have to get used to these consumer riots. The decline of nationalism has left a void for aggressive behaviour. The Government is cracking down on Saturday night punch-ups.

There is a build-up within the biology of the average shopper: adrenalin, cortisol, testosterone - and that's before a trip to the medicine cupboard. Aggression simply needs a powerful stimulus, accompanied by frustration, to come to the boil.

Those who have stirred up rebellion with consumers are, of course, those smooth TV types whose various makeover programmes seduce viewers into believing that their lives can be changed by consumerism. If Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had swished into view during the mayhem in north London this week, he would have been torn limb from limb.

For, whatever the TV fantasy offers, it is never enough. Riots that occur through need are about to be replaced by their opposite: riots of unsatisfied excess. It is no accident another Ikea riot has already taken place in a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, Saudi Arabia.

Fighting, pushing, stabbing and gouging in order to buy a cut-price futon is the last gasp of untrammelled capitalism. Just as sexual orgies were said to indicate the end of the Roman empire, consumer riots may presage a wider collapse. Those who appear on our screens, hawking a cruel fantasy of domestic contentment, are stirring up precisely the kind of trouble that we have seen in London this week.

What next? Revolution at B&Q? Disturbances among property-crazed Brits in the Dordogne? Alan Titchmarsh thrown into a water-feature at one of the big gardening centres? There may be more treats in store for people in South Africa, Kazakhstan and elsewhere who like to keep up with amusing news from around the world.