Now Is the Summer of Our Discontent

The area around our house in Hackney was quiet last night, as were streets across Britain. Monday was a different story. Four blocks to the north, the local estate was in flames. Three blocks to the east, police struggled to contain rampaging street violence. Three blocks to the west, dozens of local Turkish men lined the streets, armed with meat cleavers borrowed from kebab shops, to protect their businesses. Police helicopters buzzed overhead, and, on our road at least, the curtains were firmly shut.

Last night, I walked with a friend down to where the worst of it had been. Mare Street, the main drag where roaming gangs of hoodies looted trucks and smashed up shops, was largely empty. The Pembury estate, scenes of the worst running battles with riot police, looked dark but peaceful. The pubs were open again, although with wooden boards still over their windows. People looked nervously at each other, holding eye contact just a moment longer than usual, as if to ask: What on earth just happened?

It would be an understatement to say that the riots of the last few days caught Britain by surprise. There had been dire warnings in recent years of a looming "summer of rage," but it hadn't come to pass. The economy had stalled, made worse by overly hasty austerity measures, but the only protests came from university students who faced higher fees. The type of urban unrest that dogged Britain in the early 1980s had been avoided. This is England: That sort of thing only happens to the French.

But it did happen and, with Parliament hurriedly recalled Thursday, Britain's political class now begins the search for answers. Much rote condemnation will follow, and rightly so. Yet lurking below are more profound questions that need to be asked by Britain's political elite; questions to which it self-evidently does not yet have good answers -- especially given that the two most tempting explanations don't stack up.

The first is to blame "the cuts." True, these are harming Britain's economy: a model used by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a respected think tank, suggests they will reduce growth by 0.8 percent this year. Some specific programs for young people have also already suffered, like the Future Jobs Fund for the long-term unemployed, and the Education Maintenance Allowance, which helps young people to stay in school.

But this doesn't add up to a causal explanation, and it probably had very little to do with violence at all. Most of the reductions in Britain's public services have not actually happened yet; a worrying thought in itself. There is also little evidence that specific cuts were cited as grievances by rioters, especially when compared, for instance, to complaints about police "stop and search" measures, which overwhelmingly affect young people from poor ethnic communities.

This leads to the second tempting explanation: race, often at the heart of similar disturbances in France. The riots began in the gritty North London area of Tottenham, after police shot and killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old with links to local gang culture. The same area saw racial violence in the 1980s, and tensions between young ethnic minorities and the police surely contributed some of the early spark. Yet the Duggan killing was an isolated incident, and this isn't a high-point for police violence. The type of casual police racism common two decades ago is much less prevalent today, while the tensions seen in Tottenham and elsewhere are more to do with the grievances of a small subset of young people, rather than their parents and grandparents.

That leaves deeper, knottier problems to explore: not least the crisis of sections for Britain's underclass. No longer able to rely on manufacturing jobs, many of these people (and especially the young) are too often facing lives of quiet educational failure and family breakdown, offset only by the false hopes of consumerism. It seems no accident that so many of the shops looted sold consumer electronics and fashionable street footwear. This is a generation once dubbed "freedom's orphans," by the center-left Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, and its lower reaches are troubled.

It is also poignant that violence hit areas like Hackney, which until now had seemed to be at the heart of a certain type of a British social and economic success story. Hackney used to be a byword for urban deprivation and state failure. It had Britain's worst schools and many of its most notorious estates. Today it remains one of the poorest boroughs in the UK, but it doesn't quite feel like that for its many middle-class residents. Until Monday night, this was seen as London's Williamsburg or Park Slope; a place of fashionable markets, racial diversity absent tension, pretty houses, and hipsters in skinny jeans riding about on fixed-wheel bikes.

Places like Hackney made it seem that Britain's ripped social fabric had been gradually repaired by a decade of high-spending Labour governments. And, to some degree, it had: Crime rates are lower, while the borough is dotted with glistening new schools and "Sure Start" children's centers. Yet just as Britain's two decades of economic resurgence rested on too much debt and financial chicanery, so its new social model of increasingly European levels of public-service provision clearly hasn't reached down to the very bottom of society.

The day after the riots, my fiancee went down to London Fields, the local park better known as the heart of hipster Hackney. She got chatting to two men out walking their dogs, one in his late teens, the other in his mid-40s. Had they seen what happened last night? "We was there!" one said. "We was in it!" Both were angry. They talked of local people furious at the police. Both saw the tragedy of the violence but also seemingly felt compelled to return for more. "It's going off tonight, it's gonna be worse," one of them said: "Last night was just the beginning." For a bruised country now urgently seeking answers, he may be right.