The Blog

Rioting 2.0: Me-Generation Unrest

I was 17 when the riots that swept Britain in 1981 broke out. Fast forward 30 years and we're dealing with a different beast in my view, the atmosphere's different, Rioters 2.0 don't seem politically motivated.

I was 17 when the riots that swept Britain in 1981 broke out. I lived in Coventry at the time and what little opportunity there had been for young people was gradually diminishing to a point of no return.

An industrial city with a long and proud heritage of manufacturing excellence, Coventry was slowly dying on the vine as businesses closed, mass redundancies began to bite and a real sense of despair grew within the local community. It was a time when people in the area literally didn't know what the future held and tensions were building.

Coventry was distinctly multi-cultural and people from every corner of the world, including my own family from Dublin, had made it their home having been attracted by the opportunities it provided. But in 1981 there literally was a palpable sense of tension in the air and The Specials summed up the spirit of the times with their number 1 single 'Ghost Town,' which contained the prophetic line: "Can't go on no more, the people getting angry."

And they were getting angry. Racial tensions began to rise, there were skirmishes in the City Centre between Anti-Nazi League and National Front supporters and small pockets of trouble broke out across the city. But nothing on the scale of what was seen in later seen in Toxteth or had been seen earlier in Bristol's St Pauls district.

Like everyone else, my friends and peer group were angry too. None of us had jobs, we'd all been on the receiving end of heavy-handed policing and the future looked anything but rosy. As we watched other cities burning we understood what was motivating the rioters and felt a real sense of solidarity with them.

They were standing up for themselves in our view and the violence and rage seemed a proportionate response - or at least the only response available - to what many of us perceived was a direct attack on our families, livelihoods and communities by the incumbent Thatcher Government.

Just like Margaret, we felt we had no alternative but to take the actions we had to take to achieve what we wanted to achieve. We felt everything we had was being wilfully pulled from under us and had to suffer the added indignity of being told it was medicine we needed to take, and stoically endure, if the country was going to get better.

I'm not saying that attitude was justified; just that it was a completely understandable response to an over-riding perception that as a community we were being fundamentally undermined and no-one was listening.

Fast forward 30 years and we're dealing with a different beast in my view. Of course there are many parallels: widespread youth unemployment, an economy in the doldrums, savage spending cuts, insensitive policing and yes a Tory at the head of the country again. But the atmosphere's different.

Today's rioters, Rioters 2.0 if you like, don't seem politically motivated to me. This doesn't feel like the culmination of simmering ill-will towards the authorities and a sense of hopelessness manifesting itself in rage on the streets like it did 30 years ago. It feels more like a lifestyle statement!

Maybe I'm getting old or maybe my inner Mail reader is struggling to get out, but though it grieves me to say it, some of today's kids don't seem to care about anything but themselves.

Yes it's a sweeping generalisation and yes it doesn't apply to every youth, but as evidenced over the past few days, Rioters 2.0 seem more concerned with upgrading their trainers than protesting. More motivated by the 'riot experience' than by a genuine desire for grievances to be heard, and keen to share their adventures with their peer group online as virtual self-aggrandisement.

On Sunday night as the trouble in Tottenham escalated I was watching the news. As more and more youths gathered on the street, almost to a man they were on the phone or taking pictures. You can imagine the conversations they were having - and it's no surprise to see the fluidity and rapidity with which copycat incidents have erupted since, given the immediacy of today's communications.

Remember 'flash mobs' - spontaneous gatherings for no real purpose other than the experience of experiencing it? Rioting 2.0 is just flash mobbing with added violence and criminality as far as I'm concerned. It's almost as if it's a new live gaming experience - with sportswear-centric prizes I might add - that's open to anyone with a hoodie.

The disgraceful footage of that injured young lad being helped by bystanders, while being simultaneously relieved of his possessions behind his back was emblematic of the acquisitive nature of Rioting 2.0. There can be no sense of community solidarity, common purpose or standing up for what you believe in motivating such behaviour. It's criminality and disrespect, pure and simple and reflects the 'me' not the 'we.'

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that low-life thieves and predatory individuals are a recent phenomenon, but I have to say that in my day (pipe and slippers alert!) we wouldn't have dreamt of standing by and watching that happen. So why didn't anyone step in?

Over the last 30 years, I'd argue, the sense of community we felt has been gradually eroded and replaced by an individualistic mindset. Communities are no longer cohesive entities that are bound by the industries they served and a common purpose. In the days of mass employment in the car industry, for instance, communities had a stake in the infrastructure that constituted their neighbourhoods. With widespread union membership they had an ongoing engagement with politics and a vehicle for expressing dissent collectively and democratically (even if that process proved ultimately ineffective). But not anymore.

Today we have atomised individuals rather than communities. There seems to be little sense of the collective, but plenty of 'what's in it for me.' Rioting 2.0 is just another manifestation of what appears to be an all-pervasive selfishness and desire for instant gratification characterising many in today's society.

We seem to have developed into a society where consumption takes precedence over compassion, where individual gain rather than mutual beneficence is to the fore and where swathes of the population are marginalised, disaffected and without hope. Given such an explosive mix, is it any wonder that we are now seeing groups of youths running amok with no apparent respect for the people or property around them and who seem more concerned with living the moment and gaining possessions than actually trying to bring about change?

Somebody once said: "There's no such thing as society." From where I'm sitting today the society I was a part of 30 years ago really is nowhere to be found. Maybe it was a prediction?