News / Europe

Opinions Divided on Reasons for UK Social Unrest

Smashed glass doors and windows and wrecked shutters of a betting shop and a jewelry shop in Enfield, north London,  Aug. 8, 2011
Smashed glass doors and windows and wrecked shutters of a betting shop and a jewelry shop in Enfield, north London, Aug. 8, 2011

Britain has been hit by two nights of riots taking place across London. Politicians say it’s been carried out by opportunistic criminals, but underlying social issues may also be playing a role.     

"It was needless, opportunistic theft and violence - nothing more, nothing less, and it is completely unacceptable," said Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Last Thursday a 29-year-old died in London, allegedly shot by police.

Two days later, on Saturday, a peaceful demonstration was held to mark his death. That turned into a violent riot with cars and buildings in north London set alight and shops looted.

Police were injured and dozens arrested. But that wasn’t the end of the story. More riots took place Sunday, spreading to the south of London.

Police called the further riots “copycat criminality”.

Professor of government at the London School of Economics, Rodney Barker says that’s a simplification.

"One will have seen across the world, quite recently actually, that whenever there is public unrest - whether it's in Iran, or Syria, or the United States, or the United Kingdom, the government says 'this is all the work of a small group of agitators, criminal elements, terrorists.'  Governments always say that. But it isn't a criminal conspiracy. Any crowd in civil unrest is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of motivations," said Barker.

He says last week’s death was a trigger. The broader context, he says, is social and economic.

He says spending cuts implemented by Britain’s current Conservative government have created a volatile situation.

"It's a bit like high speed in motor cars," he said. "You can guarantee that in areas where people drive faster, there will be more accidents because accidents are more likely to occur and to be more dangerous in those circumstances."

The riots come as Britain’s economy is suffering and the government is making deep public spending cuts and hiking up taxes.

Neil Prothero, an economist at London’s Economist Intelligence Unit, says the austerity measures, aimed at reducing Britain’s debt, are taking their toll on a local level.

“In real terms the actual spending reduction program is the most painful if it all came to fruition since the 1940s in terms of its actual squeeze on the levels of public spending," said Prothero. "It's something that the U.K. has not endured for many, many years.”

He says austerity is only just beginning and in the coming years spending cuts will have an ever larger impact.

"This is our slight concern is that the actual spending cut-backs, which affect vast swathes of the population in one way or another, whether it's  through benefits or just reduced public services in general - that is still to flow through over the coming years," he said. "It's a concern and it's a worry as to what may happen in terms of the social unrest and the general economic weakness going forward."

Nearly 200 people have been arrested across London in relation to the riots.

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