London is burning. And over four consecutive nights, the conflagration has engulfed multiple cities across the United Kingdom, including Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, and Leeds. According to some early estimates, the total cost of the vandalism and extra police could run into the hundreds of millions of pounds. In response, British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament from summer recess for an emergency session, “to stand together” against the looters. He condemned what he dubbed the “sickening scenes of people looting, vandalizing, thieving, and robbing.”
The unrest traces its immediate roots to last Saturday in Tottenham, a London suburb where a protest to commemorate the death of a man who was shot by police trying to arrest him turned violent. What followed was a viral response across the country that spurred many young people to violence, looting, and general disorder.
The riots are set against the backdrop of Britain’s ongoing fiscal and sovereign debt crisis and the coalition government’s politics of austerity. They illustrate the critical connection between class politics and fiscal retrenchment. In some ways, they resemble the British riots of 30 years ago. But the policy solutions of the past -- a strong response by the state together with the fruits of neoliberal deregulation -- may no longer be available today.
During the summer of 1981, the United Kingdom saw the Brixton riot in London, during which Afro-Caribbean young people battled with the police and set cars and buildings on fire, as well as parallel outbreaks of social unrest in Liverpool. (Coincidentally, 1981 also saw a fairy tale royal wedding. One year later, British troops engaged in active military combat abroad; the Falklands and Argentina then, rather than Libya and Afghanistan today.)
The most important parallel between the United Kingdom in 1981 and today is economic. In 1979, after constructing a “winter of discontent” -- during which public-sector unions battled an exhausted Labour government -- as a “crisis of the state” that required her decisive intervention, Margaret Thatcher swept to power as the country’s first female prime minister. But her Conservative government would soon face a summer of discontent in 1981 over what is known colloquially as “austerity politics.”