UK riots

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Over the past week or so I’ve had questions about this from my friends throughout the world and have tried to answer some of their questions as best as I can here. In reality, lots will be spent by government bodies, think tanks and other social policy research organisations trying to unpick all this for years to come so I expect that I will be only scratching the surface.


Whilst the media portrays the shooting of Mark Duggan and subsequent protests as the inciting incident for the riots and subsequent behaviour, it doesn’t answer the why. Part of the reason for the media focusing on Mark Duggan as the start is that it fits nicely into the storytelling template that they fit over incidents to try and make sense of them. It’s a basic human need, but it doesn’t necessarily help apart from to put events in a sequential order rather than a cause-and-effect model.


The discontented underclass isn’t something new in the UK there have been regular riots in cities. This is one of the reasons why Marx thought that his revolution would have occurred in the UK rather than the agrarian economies of Russia and China.  In terms of criminality, organised looting also isn’t something new; in UK parlance its often called steaming whether to gain entrance into a club or conducting shoplifting on a massive scale. It was this kind of activity in holiday destinations during the 1970s and 1980s which gave football casuals exposure to their beloved Italian brands like Australian by L’Alpina.


Design issues

Unlike planned cities on a grid structure the haphazard nature of many UK towns makes the job of policing riots much harder. It is harder to contain looters in an area and allows them lots of opportunity to escape and carry on their activity elsewhere.

Environmental issues

Some of the movement of looters seems to have been facilitated by public transport as train stations were a point for crowds to gather prior to the riots. There were also reports of rioters using the trains to travel to Medway towns and commit arson.

Governmental issues

Many of the main decision-makers in the UK were out of the country on their summer holidays, so pulling together a quorum of leaders to push through actions necessary didn’t occur for the best part of four days. In addition, David Cameron seemed to be out of step with the militant mood of the man on the street in terms of the level of response and degree of punishment that should be meted out to the criminals involved. There seemed to be an early lack of will to deal with the riots in a decisive manner.

Legal issues

UK Law doesn’t give police forces the kind of powers that other countries many enjoy in terms of the measures that they can use to put down riots. Moving forward, any prosecutions may not be a sufficient deterrent to participants as the media has reported police sources unhappy with the light sentences handed down so far.

Resourcing issues

The riots occurred at a time when:

  • The Metropolitan Police had lost some of its leadership team due to the hacking issues at News International and concerns about undue influence by the media
  • The government is looking to reduce spending on policing as part of its wider measures to reduce spending
  • There was an increased number of police on holiday
  • There was an increased number of participants on holiday from school or work
  • The subsequent redistribution of police from other cities to London provided locals the opportunities to riot instead in their own town whilst London was brought under control

Security issues

In the 1980s, the UK embarked on an unprecedented roll-out of closed circuit television camera. UK citizens are now the most surveilled people in the world.  The cameras were supposed to fulfil a number of purposes:

  • Provide citizens with reassurance
  • Provide criminals with a deterrent
  • Facilitate allocation of policing resources
  • Provide the police with evidence that can be used to track down criminals

This infrastructure promoted a reliance on a security technique that can be easily bypassed by wearing a hooded top and mask. It largely failed at protecting both people and property, though the Metropolitan Police are using CCTV images to try and track down the culprits involved.

Social issues

Whilst social deprivation has been cited as a contributing factor by some commentators, yet the civil disturbances haven’t spread to many of the UK’s most deprived regions in South Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. There may have been a trigger in terms of behavioural economics during the original riots in London as the behaviour around riots depends on a critical mass of sufficiently angry people coming together and acting in a herd mentality.

The vast majority of the behaviour seems to have been driven purely by criminal opportunity. It also brought to a head a number of issues in the UK. For instance the country’s inability to deal with youth offenders effectively: as parents, as a civil society and in the criminal justice system. The phrase feral sprang up a lot in the reporting and aptly brings home the lack of control that society has over many of its offspring.

Technological issues

Electronic communications channels allowed co-ordination of criminal activity at a local level. There were a number of channels used; BBM (Blackberry Messaging) and Facebook have received particularly high media coverage in terms of blame for facilitating the coordination of looting. The police seemed to struggle to be similarly fleet-footed.

More reading
Individual and Collective Behaviors Within Gatherings, Demonstrations, and Riots – Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 9: 579-600 (Volume publication date August 1983)

Riots and books: Remember when books were worthy of burning? | The Economist

PM statement on disorder in England – Number 10

The Science of the London Riots – Yahoo! News