Letters: Riots and the working class

Riots take us back to the days before the working class found its pride
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The Independent Online

Awful as the scenes of riot and looting in our great cities have been, let’s not run away with the idea that this is anything new.

When Samuel Johnson first came to London in the early 18th century, he was shocked by the casual violence of the city: “Some frolick drunkard, reeling from a feast, Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.” At the end of Johnson’s life, the Gordon Riots brought London to its knees.

As recently as the 1880s, the naturalist and journalist, Richard Jefferies observed that “Every now and then some individual member of the Army of Wretches turns and becomes the Devil of modern civilisation.” This great fear of the underclass subsided in the late 19th and early 20th century. The combined effects of social legislation and working-class self-improvement changed the mood. My grandfather, born in 1889 was a case in point. As a young man he joined the temperance movement and the Band of Hope; he joined a non-conformist church, he became a trade unionist, and although he left school at 12, he devoured new ideas and joined with others to make a better world.

Thanks to the evils of the Thatcher/Blair years, all this was sacrificed to “the market” and its mysterious “forces”. Even Sunday – a day my grandfather valued deeply – was swept away as a day of rest and spiritual reflection, so that more money could be made. Temperance, long ago regarded as a joke, was washed away by a sea of drunkenness. The trade union movement, partly through its own doing, was broken and humbled. The rich became even richer and the poor became a mass of infantilised benefit-recipients.

Chris Hare

Worthing, West Sussex

Your leader of 12 August asks the Prime Minister to reject knee-jerk authoritarian responses to the recent troubles and show more of an understanding of what has gone wrong. Well he may start by studying the tone of your article. The intellectual liberal for whom The Independent is so eager to give a voice is in denial.

You persist with the idea that if only we engage with those who are now labelled as the underclass, if only we would listen to their grievances then all will be well. Just what world are you living in? What about the law-abiding residents of the areas where gangs prevail who are prisoners in their own homes, intimidated into silence when daring to give evidence against murderers.

This did not erupt overnight. We are experiencing the result of decades of seeking the easy way out. When confronting aggressive criminality we have rolled over like the lazy parent who dislikes the feeling of having to say no. You cannot reason with the unreasonable.

G Barlow

Knutsford, Cheshire

I am surprised and bewildered by the reactions of David Cameron and others to the battles on our streets. The rioting is a symptom of our unequal society and the disquiet and unrest of those who have least, made worse by the cuts and a rise in unemployment due to the economic crisis.

Take a rioter who is already at the bottom of the pile and make them homeless or cut their benefits and what are they going to do? Crime will be the only option. It would be well to consider the fact that one of the reasons for creating the welfare system was to prevent revolution in this country. If you take this away, as we are doing at the moment, what do you think might happen?

Instead it would be more advantageous to look at the inequality in our society and set about changing that, not making it worse.

Joanna Lowndes

Sherborne, Dorset

Your correspondent D F McLellan (letter, 12 August) advocates the return of the stocks for rioters and looters. However, is there not a danger that they will immediately be vandalised and destroyed by the very people they were designed for?

Nick Pritchard


So David Cameron backs plans by councils to evict tenants convicted of rioting. That’ll keep them off the streets, then.

Tony Kirwood

London SE8

Justice on a conveyor belt

The most pertinent of the many letters on the recent riots is from Robin Grey QC, published under the heading “Ask them why they did it” (12 August).

It would appear that the offenders are being wheeled into court on a conveyor belt and handed out a sentence without so much as a query on their reasons. It is common knowledge that the most frustrating thing to a teenager is not to be listened to nor considered worthy of constructive comment, and this is exactly how these youngsters are being treated by the Government and the courts.

The Cameron government of millionaires and old Etonians will never, in a million years, understand the minds of the youngsters from the poor areas of Britain. So why not at least make an effort and ask them the question “Why did you do it?”

John Sharkey


Arthritic Met needs reform

Almost since its foundation, we have been encouraged to view the Metropolitan Police as the nation’s premier police force, a view that has been assiduously encouraged by the Met itself and by our politicians. And yet, as we can actually see from the lacklustre performance of senior officers, it looks more and more that promotion within the Met has had little to do with competence.

The accumulation of disparate functions within the Met, all fighting their own budget corner, has inevitably led to the bloated and ineffective structure that exists today. If I was a Londoner, I would want to know what proportion of the Met’s £4bn budget gets spent on the policing that directly affects me.

Is it time to think the unthinkable and bring some of the Met’s functions, such as antiterrorism, where they should more logically be, directly under the Home Secretary, allowing a slimmed down Met to focus on street policing. This would remove most of the politicking both from within the Met and between the Mayor and the Home Secretary, and would also allow more direct comparisons on performance and value for money with the other forces around the country.

Andrew Whyte


The top civil servants in the Home Office are to blame for the recent breakdown in law and order. For years they have starved the police forces of the resources they need to carry out their jobs effectively. They have failed to build sufficient prison places to house convicts.

They know that prisons are universities of crime and that criminals come out of prison for the most part much worse than when they go in. They lose their fear of prison too. Keeping people in prison is very expensive. The Home Office do not want people to go there. But in the way of ultimate punishment it is all we have.

The top civil servants have wanted to create the illusion that the guilty will be caught and punished when in most cases they don’t want them to be. The police are judged in their performance by statistics. Individual police officers don’t even want us to report minor crimes any more. They know they cannot find the time and resources to solve minor crimes if we do report them.

We must give the police the resources they need to catch criminals. We must find a way to provide cheaper prison places and expand the number of prison places. A prison building programme is inevitable and cannot be delayed any longer. Can we just get on with it, please? We need effective prisons where people can be rehabilitated. Many people in prison cannot even read and write. The Government have to find the money.

Nigel F Boddy


I hate to rain on their parade but there is a degree of hubris creeping into police statements about the riots.

The police are quick to claim credit for responding to what, admittedly, was a new phenomenon, while of course equally quickly pointing out the dangers of proposed cuts in police budgets. Credit? It took four days to marshal a sufficiently large police presence to quell the rioting (with the aid of rain) and only then by denuding other forces.

This smacks, not of heroic dedication to public service with everyone giving their all, but rather an arthritic command structure that was incapable of reacting swiftly.

John Wells

West Wittering, West Sussex

Allan Friswell is correct (letter, 11 August) – the role of the police is to prevent crime. Interacting with “da yoof” happens to be an excellent method of doing so.

David French


England shamed before the world

I am a Londoner writing from Ghana, having been here on business all week watching the appalling news unfold and seeing my city burn. At every meeting I have been to here, I am repeatedly asked “Why?” to which I cannot answer.

Ghana is a very peaceful country, there is no government support for housing, no unemployment benefit, no other benefit. Not working is not an option. The people I meet here just cannot understand why young British teenagers and men – some with jobs, educated and clearly with enough food – felt the need to steal.

I have been embarrassed and saddened all week.

Krissy Mackintosh

London SW18

Let’s forget socio-economic excuses for the shaming of our country last week. Cornwall, not inner-city, London is the poorest region of the UK.

Its native language has been marginalised and with second-home owners we have the worst housing crisis in the UK. Most Cornish face the reality of having no prospect of ever living in the towns and villages of their birth and face low- and minimum-wage job opportunities or generations on benefit.

Yet Cornwall has had no riots looting, theft or murder. We remain wedded to community and family and the legacy of Methodism remains strong. This last sentence perhaps heads the agenda for our ruptured country to consider. The Cornish have never been a part of the 1980s “me” generation; we were too busy dealing with the closure of our mines and the humble campaign for regional aid and a university for Cornwall.

The lessons lie elsewhere than in poverty and lack of opportunity – Cornwall has all of them and no riots.

Chy An Botallack

Penzance, Cornwall

I’m from Northern Ireland, where we’ve had our fair share of riots; even in these more peaceful times we still have some drama every July. Never in my 35 years have I known anyone in England to care, much less reconvene Parliament.

We’ve also had to hear politicians, on being asked about water cannons, say, “Oh no, we only use those in Northern Ireland.” As if we are a different class of people who expect or deserve nothing more.

I don’t agree with or support the riots in England, but I’m dismayed at the reaction of the English public who are so quick to dismiss the people of Northern Ireland and the disruption we suffer year on year.

Joanne Docherty

Lisburn, Co Antrim

Ofcom mobile phone research

Richard Ingrams criticises Ofcom for conducting and publishing research into the communications sector (“Expensive research in an age of austerity”, 6 August). Let me explain why we conduct the research. It provides Ofcom with an essential evidence base on which we can base decisions to benefit consumers. For example, this year’s research reveals important trends in mobile phone use.

Specifically, the research shows big increases in mobile data use. This has significant implications for the future demands that will be placed on spectrum – a finite and valuable resource which Ofcom manages. The research also indicates significant use of the internet on mobile devices among teenagers – an important development which relates to our duty to promote media literacy.

These are just a few of many important implications revealed in our research. Ofcom is also required by law to conduct the research, specified in the Communications Act 2003.

James Thickett

Director of Market Research and Intelligence, Ofcom

London SE1

Deaf people really listen

Denis MacShane makes a common but lazy use of a metaphor in his article “Slash and burn: less Brussels, better Europe” (6 August). He describes the debate between Europhiles and Europhobes as a “dialogue of the deaf”, confusing hearing loss with choosing to ignore what is said.

If Mr MacShane were to observe a real “dialogue of the deaf” he might be impressed by the attentiveness of those present. Hearing and listening are different things. Deaf people do not have the luxury of being able to filter out messages in which they are not interested, or with which they do not agree; we have to pay attention. Perhaps Eurocrats could learn something from us?

Jane Cordell


Lifting, picking or howking

Further to Angela Kingston’s letter about school-children working in the fields to pick potatoes (8 August), it was, indeed, known as “tattie-howking” in Scotland.

When I was growing up in Fife, I remember that secondary school pupils were given the opportunity to take two weeks off school in the autumn term, although it was usually only the poorest children, whose families needed the extra money, who went. The main group of adults the children worked with was often from the traveller community.

Hilary Callaway

London SW15

Perspectives on bicycle helmets

It isn’t the rider’s head that takes the punishment

I have come off bikes a number of times, usually cornering on wet roads. I have broken my collar bone (twice), had a groin strain, dislocated a bone in one thumb and badly strained the other, and had numerous grazes on my hips and thighs; but in only one of those accidents would wearing a helmet have saved me from the small wound on the temple that left me superficially covered in blood.

Twice my helmet has actually pushed my eyewear into my nose, causing cuts. And I haven’t forgotten the local rider killed in broad daylight when a van hit him and smashed his pelvis. So (pace Mr Langford, letters 9 August), most of the time the proper analogy isn't with banging your head against a wall, but shoulder-charging it. Nevertheless, I do wear a helmet because I recognise the remote possibility that a crash at speed could result in brain damage and a helmet might help prevent it.

That’s my assessment of the risk I face in the sort of riding I do. For most “average bicyclists”, the risk is likely to be different; they are more at danger of being crushed than having a head injury. On that basis there is no reason to make the wearing of cycle helmets, however sensible, compulsory.

Stuart Hathaway


What matters is the cycling culture

There is a general misunderstanding by some of your correspondents about the protection offered by cycle helmets. They are not designed to withstand a heavy impact. Their construction is of plastic foam with a very thin outer shell. Compare this with a motorcycle helmet.

They are meant to offer some protection in the event of a cyclist falling off a bike – hence their original use in mountain biking and BMX. They offer no meaningful protection to those hit by a high-speed vehicle. Indeed there is good evidence that motorists give helmet-wearing cyclists less consideration than non-wearers.

Even though I usually wear a helmet I do not want wearing them to be compulsory. It also encourages the erroneous belief that cycling is inherently dangerous and therefore acts as a deterrent to people taking it up.

What is required is for motorists to have greater consideration for all other more vulnerable road users. This includes giving cyclists plenty of room when overtaking.

I have cycled many miles in France, Spain, Sweden and Finland, where driver attitudes towards cyclists could not be in greater contrast to the UK. I believe this may have something to do with the cycling culture in those countries, where a greater percentage of people cycle at some time and therefore are able to appreciate the cyclists’ needs when they are driving. We need more people cycling in the UK, leading to an established cycling culture, in turn leading to better attitudes by motorists. Compulsory helmets would be a deterrent to this.

Bob Stephens

Bovey Tracey, Devon

Danger signal

If, as Emilie Lamplough says (Letter, 8 August), safety helmets cause more accidents to cyclists because of the perception that they are safer than without, then would the converse apply? If cyclists wore helmets that made them more vulnerable, say party hats from Christmas crackers, would they have fewer accidents?

Fabian Acker

London SE22