Apprentices in a long and riotous tradition


The nature and scale of this week’s rioting in British cities may appear inexplicable, but a quick glance at history shows plenty of equally violent parallels

LONDON HAS ALWAYS been a volatile city. The rioting last weekend in the working-class neighbourhoods of north and east London soon sparked copycat violence elsewhere, as hundreds of looters spilled into the shopping areas of Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. Now, after more than 1,500 arrests across England, the cells are filling up and magistrates are sitting through the night.

While the UK has become used to violent demonstrations over such issues as the G20 summit, student fees or bankers’ bonuses, few expected a flare-up of a kind reminiscent of Brixton and Broadwater Farm during the 1980s. That was the era of stop-and-search and institutional police racism, and the tensions these caused were meant to have been consigned to another era.

Like many academic commentators who spend their days analysing political disturbances, my sights were fixed not on the inner cities where, we were led to believe, there was a new spirit of reconciliation, but on the activities of the English Defence League, the stunts of Islam4UK and the custard-pie attack by Jonnie Marbles on Rupert Murdoch. We were wrong.

With the death of Mark Duggan, the spirit of Cynthia Jarrett – whose death in Tottenham in 1985 sparked the worst riot in modern memory – returned to haunt the streets.

Throughout history the English (as Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, pointed out on Wednesday) have protested about everything and anything, from the price of theatre tickets to the cost of a meat pie to the results of football matches. There have been riots in every major city since the industrial revolution made cities too large and too populous to govern. In the countryside, rural rioting and hayrick burning were common events.

For those with only a vague knowledge of alternative British history, it may come as a surprise that there have been two Welsh uprisings, one lowland Scottish civil war, a number of Scottish crofters’ rebellions, one uprising in Derbyshire and another in Kent. Numerous attempts have been made to assassinate the entire cabinet and seize London, and there have been a number of plots to murder the royal family.

There has also been an almost continuous history of nationalist freedom movements, from the Fenians of the 1860s to the tartan army of the 1970s and revolutionary groups operating in Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man during the 1980s. Beneath the surface of British liberalism, the population often turns out to be more vociferous and aggressive than expected.

The old street-fighting days of the 1930s seemed to have come to an end with the demise not only of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts but also of the communist dream that fuelled young minds until the 1968 anti-Vietnam War riots in Grosvenor Square. The big ideological issues that divided the political right and left, and the powerful workers’ groups and trade unions who took sides in conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, have also vanished.

The activists of these years saw their politics also as their morality; it was the morality of a generation that is now mostly gone.

The British middle class doesn’t traditionally engage in rioting, but recently this has changed. People will march if they feel a principle or a matter of trust is at issue between themselves and the government. This was the case with the protests against the Gulf War, the marches of the Countryside Alliance, the appearance of the fuel lobby and the militancy of pensioners.

The children of the middle class are less concerned about being polite and have taken to more militant tactics. At the G20 protests in 2009, where a bystander, Ian Tomlinson, died after being struck by a police officer, the overt aim of protesters was to “overthrow capitalism”, their catchphrase being “Let’s make this a very English revolution”. Among their targets were exorbitant bankers’ salaries, corrupt politicians and general greed; among their aims were secure jobs, environmental sustainability, the removal of border controls and government by the people. This was perhaps a reasonable agenda for four days of planned protest in which morality and concerns about justice superseded the old political demands of their parent’s generation. More recently, the student protests of 2010 summoned up the spectre of the guillotine as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were surrounded by militants while on their way to the theatre.

Both the British prime minister, David Cameron and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson find the current looting and pillaging hard to explain. Indeed, for the first two days the riots were not given that official classification. The police were at first powerless. This may be because the disturbances hark back to the sort of problems not seen for more than 300 years.

The current aspirational riots, in which young people go to their favourite shops, choose the latest goods and scarper, are little different from the numerous apprentice riots of the 18th century. These were also the domain of young, single men, out to cause trouble, to steal goods, to break windows and to set light to the houses of those they didn’t like, in the knowledge that there was no authority, bar the army, that could disturb them. These apprentices also came from deprived areas of town and spilled into the city centres, called together not by BlackBerrys but by fire beacons, the ringing of church bells or the simple act of fly-posting. You do not need modern technology for social networking.

A number of these apprentice riots were directed at Irish immigrants or were overtly anti-Catholic. In 1780 Lord George Gordon and the Protestant League took an anti-Catholic petition to parliament. Things rapidly got out of hand, ending with the burning of Newgate Prison, mass looting, the setting on fire of much of the City of London and nearly 300 deaths.

The worst disturbances happened at the gin distillery of the Catholic merchant Thomas Langdale, where the mob got so drunk on raw alcohol that many burned to death.

The present violence seems to be the natural rhythm of British life.

Clive Bloom is the author of Violent London: 2,000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts, published by Pan Macmillan