An initially peaceful demonstration over the death of a man in a police shooting incident in Tottenham, north London, has now escalated into the worst social unrest seen in London for decades. The original protest has morphed into extensive violence across the capital drawing in disparate and opportunist elements such as gangs, disaffected youth and looters motivated purely by greed. Huge fires have raged out of control for hours. Desperate shopkeepers and small business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed, families have lost their homes and communities have been torn apart. Overstretched and badly coordinated police services have been unable to cope leaving people frightened and isolated. A political vacuum has been exposed within London itself as the mayor and the prime minister eventually scurry back from their holidays.
Though these disturbances bear some superficial similarity with the riots of the 1980s the most significant recent precedent is something quite different: the Ikea riot of 10 February 2005 in which a new superstore in Edmonton, north London, provoked mass greed by slashing its prices for a limited period. Vast crowds stormed the store and roads were blocked by abandoned cars as people feared missing potential bargains. These surreal scenes are much closer to the type of violence experienced in London that was not being driven by a clearly defined political agenda and had little or no connection with the original protest in Tottenham. A consumer society in which many are reduced to passive onlookers has instilled a pent-up fury that has morphed into a nihilistic desire for destruction. Though recent public spending cuts and other issues have generated a sense of anxiety the current wave of violence cannot be attributed to the last few months of public policy alone. Extensive cutbacks in youth services in deprived neighbourhoods, the curtailment of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and other deleterious developments all play a role in the wider context for what has happened but they do not fully or even partly explain the indiscriminate nature of the violence. A society which peddles false aspirations but fails to invest adequately in its own future can only drift into a further spiral of decline.