Rioting against the Crown


The Riot Act (1714-1967) would be read out by the appropriate officers of the Crown to any crowd of more than twelve who were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together". They had to disperse within an hour or to be arrested for a felony punishable by death. The words to be read out were as follows:


Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!


Rioting was a political act against the Crown’s law and order. It remains so today. But we don’t need such a narrow understanding of riot. Last week a most damaging riot took place in the elusive financial markets. The rioters burnt property worth £150bn belonging to the UK’s top 100 companies. World wide the rioters destroyed £2.8 trillion worth of share values. Many owners are simply switching to gold. Gold hit record highs in Asian trading nearing $1,700 an ounce. Market riots come from gambling and panic followed by the looting (‘market takes profits’) of corporate assets and pension funds. 


Burning share values is not just a paper exercise. It will translate into lost jobs, redundancies and pay cuts. People will be made to pay. It won’t be the dealers or the capitalists. Don’t expect the Crown to act against them. The police have not surrounded the Stock Exchange and arrested the rioters or confiscated their computers. Their attention is focused elsewhere. It’s the same the whole world over. The rich do the looting and the poor get the blame.

Not many miles away from the City the social consequences of market madness were being played out on the streets of Tottenham. The spark was the shooting dead of a local man from Broadwater Farm estate. The police have given their account, but after the Charles De Menezes shooting their story cannot be taken at face value. It has already begun to change. The family wanted answers and organised a demonstration to the police station. 
This became the focal point for alienated young people who came to vent their anger about this and everything else they are fed up with. This turned into a riot – a mass political action – a violent outburst against the Crown (i.e. state) Young people began contesting the streets with Her Majesty’s constabulary. In Northern Ireland riots led to ‘No-Go’ areas in which Crown forces withdrew from Catholic areas. People organised their own self-defense.

Today the reference point was not popular republicanism in Ireland but previous confrontations with the Crown in England – the Thatcher riots in 1981 and 1985 and the anti-poll tax riots in 1990. England lacks a republican culture, program or party. Its rioters are not aiming to replace the Crown’s law and order with popular self government. It is a protest not an insurrection, although the Crown will treat it like the latter. It is the Right who reference Ireland in demanding the use baton rounds, water cannon and exemplary sentences in Her Majesty’s prisons.    



On Monday the rioting spread across London and out to Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, and Bristol. The famous song titles from the 1980s London’s Burning (Clash) and Anarchy in the UK (Sex Pistols) come to mind. Now it was not just rioting against the police but looting shops and arson which bring home the violence graphically. Areas became war zones not just for rioters and police but for many bystanders caught up in it all.  


Politics and economics are never far apart as Rupert Murdoch has shown. The further the riots moved from Tottenham the more ‘economic’ motivation took over. Looting, narrowly defined, is redistribution carried out by poor people. Nobody ever heard of rich people looting. Why would they when they can buy it all? Their type of looting, such as asset stripping and tax avoidance, has been made entirely legal. Neither are ‘well paid’ workers likely to join in because a job and regular pay packet is a stake in the system.

Looting is more than redistribution. It requires an entrepreneurial spirit among the ‘lower classes’. You have to be quick to seize the opportunity. The old fashioned way is to grab the goods and cart them off down the road. The much lauded entrepreneurship is not confined to the rich classes or to financial dealers with computer screens. Given the right opportunity many more show the wheeler dealer spirit and join in.  

Looting is a risk taking opportunity to improve your lot at somebody else’s expense – the essence of entrepreneurship. A rational calculation would show the odds improve when the Crown loses control of the streets. If you have next to nothing, why not take a punt on the roulette wheel of life? An appeal to morality will not carry much weight in a capitalist society in which greed and avarice is the most important social value. 


Income redistribution and youthful entrepreneurship does not explain it all. It has been called ‘aggressive late night shopping’ in for example JD Sports. The culture of capitalist consumerism has encouraged young people to take what they can. Others blamed the lack of education. Young people did not understand that Cameron’s Big Society means ‘free labour’ not ‘free goods’ (or de-commoditisation).     


Redundant youth


The funniest thing this week was a video link of Nick Clegg before the 2010 election predicting that if the Tories won there would be rioting in the streets. Cameron said this was a lot of scaremongering. But Clegg’s prediction proved correct because he began from the economics of austerity which must underpin the many layers of causality.

The capitalist economy forms the background for these riots. The market concentrates wealth in the hands of the few and leaves a whole section of the working class in poverty and struggling to survive on low pay or ‘benefits’. Unemployment, underemployment, and long hours for low wages has left millions on the edge of society in what was once called the ‘underclass’. This section of the working class is marginalized and demonized. It includes most of the 914,000 young people between 16 and 24 who are unemployed.           
England’s young people are roughly divided into the student youth and the redundant youth. They are the hopeful and the no hopers. The hopeful think they have a future. They will be heavily in debt and some will be heavily disillusioned. The students have already had their protests and riots against education policy which now seem moderate by comparison. Parliament did nothing.

Now the redundant youth are having their say. The no hopers have given up on hope. They have no future. A local protest sparked an England wide rebellion of no hope. The rebels seem to have gone ‘mad’ or have been made ‘mad’. They are angry about something. They have no programme or demands. If there is a message it is hate the police and take what you can. This is why they have no hope of victory and no means of appealing for support from the rest of the people.    


The Tories are incapable of understanding or explaining this. All they can do demonise redundant youth as feral rats or mindless idiots. These rebels will suffer the fate of every failed rebellion in history – exemplary punishment and demonization. Much will depend on what lessons working people draw and how it impacts on politics. Will it be Cameron’s Falkland’s moment or his Waterloo? Thatcher showed how to turn an expensive disaster into a political victory. 


England’s Crown


Before the last election Cameron pointed to a ‘broken society. Let’s not forget the busted economy and failed democracy. Now he has identified England as a ‘sick society’. So things have got worse under the Tory Coalition. However blaming the Coalition government is only part of an answer. The real problem is the bureaucratic state and its relations with the rest of society. 


The UK state is the ‘Crown’ - the police, Ministers, civil servants, armed forces and judiciary. The Crown is a permanent set of institutions responsible for taxation, housing, welfare, law and order’ and the ‘Defence of the realm’. The government of the Crown has the responsibility for presenting and justifying policies and actions to parliament and people. It is the ‘front of house’ for everything planned in the corridors of Whitehall.  
The riots began as a confrontation with the police. When this spread into a full blow crisis the different parts of the Crown came together. Power was concentrated in COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) under the Civil Contingency Act. The Crown’s Emergency Committee brings together police chiefs, the PM, senior Ministers and Security Chiefs. It can suspend parliament and mobilise all forces, including the army if necessary, to face down any threat. Sixteen thousand police were brought in to secure London’s streets. 

Parliament is irrelevant to all this. But it was recalled from holiday so that MPs can have a chance to condemn the rioters. The leaders of all ‘Crown parties’ agree that lawlessness will be stamped out and those involved hunted down. The problem of a ‘sick society’ is blamed on rioters, parents, schools, redundant youth, gangs and criminal elements. The Tories play their class mantra – family, church or morality and a strong state. It presses all the right buttons in Tory England.


Republican socialists will not join the witch-hunt or demonization of our redundant youth and the stigmatization of people struggling to survive on low incomes. Rioter or not they are all part of the working class and victims of a sick society. Our arguments are primarily about politics and economics. Talk of morality is empty Tory rhetoric unless it is built on an economy of solidarity and social justice.


The Crown and the Coalition must be put in the frame or better still the dock. They are responsible for the economic disaster, the social anarchy, and the massive alienation felt by young people. They have built a funeral pyre which only needed a spark to create this inferno. The answer is not more powers for the Crown. England’s people need to take control. We need radical democratic political change so that working class communities can govern themselves.  


The economy has to take its share of the blame for producing the sick society. Capitalism and the rule of the City and the banks are a major problem. The Tories are avoiding any link between poverty and unemployment and the riots. If people want to end the sick society the economy must work for people not profit. None of this is possible unless the working class movement starts to make democratic change a priority.  


[Based on article published in Chartist as Tory England in Flames 11 August 2011]



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