The riots are a catastrophe. They are a catastrophe for communities traumatised by looting, arson and petrol bombs – in many cases, such as Tottenham and Hackney, among the poorest areas in Britain. “It’s poor people like who suffer because of these riots,” one young woman told me just off Mare Street – where the worst of Monday’s rioting in Hackney took place – her obviously shaken child clutching her leg.
They are a catastrophe for residents of London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere, who feel terrorised in their own cities and even besieged in their own homes. Like all Londoners, I was pretty anxious on Monday as I cycled through Hackney at 10pm. There is a disconcerting feeling that trouble could flare up anywhere, at any time. Normal life still feels suspended.
They are a catastrophe for those who took part in the rioting and looting. I won’t make a habit of quoting David Cameron, but when he told rioters that “you are potentially ruining your own lives, too”, he had a point. There will be irresistible demands for the harshest possible sentences; Westminster council is already threatening to evict tenants involved in the disorder; and those who have taken part in the disturbances – on however big or small a scale – may well pay for the rest of their lives.
But the riots are a political catastrophe, too. The right was already the great beneficiary of the economic crisis. They are now set to emerge strengthened from these riots, too.
This is far from an unpredictable consequence. When riots shook US cities in the 1960s and 1970s, millions of formerly Democratic-voting, white working-class people drifted into the waiting arms of the populist right. It was called ‘backlash’, and it still influences the US political system today.
We are already experiencing our own backlash here. According to one YouGov poll, nine out of ten want to see water cannon deployed; a majority want the army to get involved; and a third want live bullets to be used on rioters. Twitter is buzzing with contempt for “feral youths” and a “lazy underclass”, with lots of violent rhetoric about what should be done to them. Making a link between people on benefits and the riots is widespread.