To understand the London riots and the equally vicious way British lawmakers have responded to them, you have to understand the British class system. Far from being a simple distinction of money or breeding, class goes to the very heart of how each and every man, woman, and child in Britain conceives of their social and political landscape. Class defines them. They wear it on their sleeves in the form of clues that are as unmistakable to fellow Brits as they are unintelligible to Americans, including the papers they read, the clothes they wear, the pubs they frequent, the forms of transportation they use, the narcotics they prefer, the places they vacation (or holiday, to use the british term), the institutions where they're educated, the way they cut and style their hair, and perhaps, above all, their accents.
I spent three years at the University of St Andrews - yes, the one that William and Kate went to. Yes, at the same time they were there - neck deep in the simmering resentments that surrounded the heterogeneous mix of social classes at the University. The presence of the Prince had brought an influx of upper class, or "posh" British students to a rural Scottish university that also had large numbers of kids from working-class, Scottish families. What surprised me then, and continues to be a source of grim amusement to me is that class is such a deep-seated notion in Britain that it often has nothing to do with actual money. In St Andrews I had "upper-class" friends whose families had slowly whittled away large family fortunes over the last one hundred years to the point of being basically broke. But then, and this is the golden rule of the British social system: you are never completely broke as long as your last name is recognized by the people who count. Conversely, you are never upper class, regardless of how much money you make, if you don't have a last name that backs it up. When a British person speaks of the middle class, he is not talking about people who earn a median income, he is talking about wealthy people who only made their money in the last 100 years. Social mobility, while more attainable than it has ever been, is still something of a foreign notion to the British. If you are born upper class, you will die upper class. Same for middle class, same for working class, and god help them, same for the lower class.
Hundreds of years of social segregation has fostered immense amounts of suspicion, mistrust, disdain, and downright hate between British social classes. Each group harbors deeply held convictions regarding the supposed characteristics of the others. The Posh are stuck up, out of touch, and spend their days drinking Pimms and watching rugby. The working classes drink too much cheap ale and only care about football (soccer) and getting sunburns in the Costa del Sol. The closest thing Americans have to these notions are racial stereotypes. The difference is that we call people who believe in them "prejudiced," while for the British, believing in class stereotypes is, by and large, quite normal.
No group suffers from class stereotypes as much as the lower classes, who are feared and despised by all, even as they have less class consciousness than any of the other groups. They are the "louts" - a word that conservative commentator Peter Hitchens uses to describe rioters in a recent rant in his Daily Mail blog. He didn't invent the word, it's used by many British people to describe the underclass boogeyman: drunken or perhaps drugged youth with little education and no desire to work. A lout is not just amoral, but anti-moral, hell bent on the destruction of a long and ill defined list of supposed British virtues.
He drinks fortified alcohol. He wears the jersey of his favorite football team regardless of weather or occasion. If he needs to cover up, undoubtedly for illicit purposes, he throws on a hooded sweatshirt to conceal his face from the CCTV cameras that monitor almost every square of asphalt in British cities. He may be of Caribbean, Middle Eastern, or Bangladeshi descent, but he may just as easily be descended from a long line of the Anglo poor people who have made up British lower classes since the beginning of recorded history.
The British have many ways of saying "lout": NED (Non Educated Delinquent) Chav, Scally, pikey, or as an acquaintance recently put it: "The dregs of society." Make no mistake about these terms: they have the same weight and connotations as our own "white trash." Anyone using them is revealing an ugly and deeply rooted prejudice.
The demonizing of the urban underclasses is not new to Britain. The British have been doing it since the populations of urban centers exploded during the Georgian Era. Back then, the louts were referred to as the "mob," writes Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore, his seminal work on the British system of convict transportation that founded Australia. "...(It) had become an object of terror and contempt, but little was known about it. It was seen as a malign fluid, a sort of magma that would burst through any crack in law and custom, quick to riot and easily inflamed to crime by rabble rousers."
Sound familiar? Try listening to the sermonizing of David Cameron and others when they talk about what is causing people to riot: "moral collapse," "bad parenting," and, best of all, "inner-city culture." What the hell is inner-city culture? The key sentiment that underlines all of these generalizations is the insidious conviction that criminals are born and not made. It is exactly the same thing that Henry Fielding had in mind in 1751 when he blamed criminality on gin, gambling, and a love of luxury that made even the "very dregs of the people" reach beyond their prescribed stations in society.
"The criminal became the dreaded sans-culotte's cousin," writes Hughes. "Georgian fear of the "mob' led to Victorian belief in a 'criminal class.' Against both, the approved weapon was a form of legal terrorism."
He was referring to transportation to the newly discovered Australia. In the year 2011, the names for the lower classes may have changed but legal terrorism is still the preferred British tactic in dealing with them. The Tory government is punishing rioters by evicting them and their families from their homes, slapping them with heavy handed prison sentences, proposing to block social networking web sites during future outbreaks, and even trying to revoke the government benefits that some enjoy.
The end game of Britain's reprehensible historic legal system was either the gallows, or exile, neither of which is currently legal in Britain. If the politicians and the people can't come to a greater understanding of the prejudices that divide and inflame them, I shudder to think what their 21st century solution will look like.
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