London burning – politics at its most visceral

My friend the criminal historian John Carter Wood is interested in the etymology of American English terms such as “the Feds”, when used by rioters on the streets of Britain. It is a good question, but one should be wary of attributing too much to the influence of US culture.

One could say that this recently adopted vernacular is designed to express the impression that certain aspects of British policing have become controlled by the state through the government in Westminster. And to some degree this is true, with the Metropolitan Police, which is there to serve the London region, having become the UK’s de facto FBI. Note that the Metropolitan Police chief is appointed by the Home Secretary, albeit in cooperation with the Mayor of London.

The reform of British policing since the time of the Mad Witch of Grantham has on the one hand sharply reduced the amount of overt racism within the UK’s regional police forces, and on the other centralised policing as a whole under the direction of central government. Social engineering gone right, maybe, but there are negative consequences to this.

One mistake often made by middle-class British observers of inner city turmoil is to underestimate the degree of politicisation among those doing the rioting. It’s all mindless thugs and thieves, is the common wisdom. On the contrary, the recent London riots are undoubtedly political in part, and we are talking here about politics at its most visceral.

It is widely known throughout the socio-economic spectrum how central government micro-manages policing in Britain. My personal experience of the kind of people who take part in and instigate inner-city riots is one of sharp working class and “underclass” intellects combined with an absence of fear and willingness to have a go, come what may.

Of course there exists an American filter of the kind described by John, and the popularity of television dramas such as The Wire almost certainly plays a significant role in the evolution of street language on this side of the pond. But the dominant culture and politics are British. Also, one should never forget that that rioting is central to the Great British Tradition of political reform. Without street violence we would still be living in an age of peasants and gentry.

That violence makes the world go round is an awful truth, but it is one from which we cannot hide.