Two policemen patrolling on foot in London's Brixton area stop a black youth clutching his chest. Fresh red blood oozes from between his fingers. They find out that he is trying to get home after being stabbed outside a local discotheque. The police call for assistance on their radio. A police van arrives. The police help the youth into the van for first aid. Suddenly the van reverberates to the sound of a volley of bricks hitting the roof. A group of blacks nearby conclude that the police are making an arrest. Word of the confrontation gets around.
Two policemen in a patrol car in Liverpool's Toxteth area watch a young motorcyclist speed away. They give chase and pull him over. As they question the motorcyclist, who is black, a group of youths crowd near and taunt him. A missile arcs from the crowd and lands at the policemen's feet. The crowd cheers. The policemen call for assistance. Nearby, other youths hear the cheers. The word has got around.
Those two incidents have been traced as the actual sparks that flared into the now infamous British riots. Headlines screaming around the world claimed that near civil war had broken out on Britain's city streets. Night after night the British watched their TV screens with anger and dismay as rioters fought ferocious battles with police. Youths looting clothing and stereo stores were filmed openly, and horrified viewers watched the police frantically beating out flames on their colleagues' clothes as rioters used a new lethal weapon for mainland Britain—the Molotov cocktail, a gasoline-filled bottle plugged with a rag as a wick, ignited, and hurled.
As the flames died down, opinions and solutions were tabled in pubs, clubs, and the Commons. It became clear early on that the sporadic rioting in 15 cities around Britain following the two main riots in Brixton and Toxteth was a poor imitation of the main event. They were triggered more by media coverage and a desire to be noticed that by any widespread discontent. That left the pundits with racism, unemployment, and the police to blame.
Racism has been quickly discounted. TV films show clearly that the rioters were racially mixed and definitely not fighting amongst themselves.
Unemployment became more difficult to support as the main cause when the juvenile courts filled with dozens of 12- to 15-year-olds, and even a few 8- and 9-year-olds. The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, stridently denied the charge leveled in the House of Commons that the older rioters were driven into violence by unemployment caused by her economic policies. Reports from the streets also indicated that those involved did not see themselves as advocates for Britain's three million unemployed.
It was soon realized that the finer points of monetary policy are not exactly burning issues in the rioters' minds. Their complaint is against all authority and any government, whatever its political color. The few left-wing rabble-rousers who did join in the riots to promote their ends were given very short shrift indeed from fellow rioters who found them out. Even Britain's leftist Labour Party quickly dropped the unemployment charge as attention focused on the next fall guy—the police.
Britain's inner cities have suffered from growing unemployment for many years, and they do have racial problems. The police have to keep strict watch on streets trafficked by loitering groups of kids and immigrants with family and work problems and plagued with considerable petty theft and sporadic outbreaks of violence.
The solution to this has been a return to the "bobby on the beat" or, officially, "community policing." The best results have been obtained with older constables, perhaps because their experience lets them filter the excesses of the community, stemming the most antisocial behavior and letting minor infringements pass with a caution or reprimand.
But the "bobby" is fighting an impossible battle. When anything serious happens, he has to use the weight of the law and thus antagonize the very element he is hoping to pacify. The common complaint of the street kids is, "Oh yeah, one day they like you, and they're all smiling like, then the next day you're in the nick [jail] for doin' something you didn't do." In these communities the feeling is that the police can do nothing right.
Over the longer term, this feeling develops into complaints of harassment, which are undoubtedly valid when viewed from the perspective of a street kid who spends his day "loitering with intent." Intent to do what? Well, he doesn't know, but laws based on middle-class values of behavior say loitering is wrong per se. But what should we expect an unemployed black youth to do—go to a midday string quartet recital in St. Martins Le Grand? He can hardly sit still for 30 seconds without fidgeting. His fidgets make the police fidget too, and that's where the trouble starts.
The police pump him on what he's doing, ask him to move on, and arrest him now and then. As a result, we do not yet have a Harlem or Watts, where middle-class people cannot safely walk the streets at night. Instead, we now have riots—explosions of frustration against a police force seen to be repressive, interfering, unsympathetic, and often racist.
The response from the government has been predictable. The government believes it must do something. So fine statements were made about "enabling the police to do their job"—which translates into giving them more equipment.
As luck would have it, experiments with the cruder forms of "the technology of repression" have had a testing laboratory in Britain for some years: Northern Ireland. Water cannons, tear gas, and plastic bullets have all failed to quell disturbances there. Many say that they increased the violence before their use was abandoned. Fortunately, the police themselves don't believe in heavy artillery, knowing full well that it further widens the gulf between themselves and the people they can control only by consent.
They have opted in the end only for visored crash helmets and riot shields that cannot be set on fire by Molotov cocktails. From Northern Ireland they have imported one tactical maneuver—repeated high-speed forays in vehicles into gathering crowds to scatter groups into side streets and snatch ringleaders. Ugly scenes in Manchester, following the Liverpool riots, were quickly suppressed by using this technique.
The second line of government "action" has been the fact-finding mission. One, under high court judge Lord Scarman, has been a conspicuous success. Even without his full-length wig, Lord Scarman has the style and the experience to bully a senior police officer or cajole a surly black teenager into telling the truth. He conducted his independent inquiry in Brixton, where he won the hearts of the frustrated residents. As a result, he had the terms of his inquiry extended to the whole country. But his report will not appear for some time.
The other missions have been carried out by politicians. Prime Minister Thatcher has been to Toxteth and Brixton, and Environment Minister Michael Heseltine stationed himself in Liverpool for a week to "look and listen." TV viewers saw him standing aghast in front of some devastated public housing that has been in a state of decay for six years.
Unlike Jimmy Carter in the Bronx, Heseltine couldn't suggest that more government money should be spent on the problem. The plain truth is that his government doesn't have any money. Strapped tightly into a monetarist straightjacket and limited by government spending plans that need all hands on deck to stop spending from going out of control, the cabinet's strategy over the riots has been clear. As politicians they must appear to be doing things and showing concern; as part of their economic strategy they must not do too much. To do so might arouse criticism that their economic policies were responsible for the riots in the first place.
Such is politics. Of course, the politicians' strategy doesn't come within a mile of the real roots of the problem. But by being forced away from other remedies because those have failed, they may yet be forced into seeing the truth.
The problems of Britain's inner cities may have been catalyzed by the present recession, but the rot has been eating at them for many years. Inner-city revival programs have failed dismally as industrialists and homeowners have headed for green-field sites away from the old industrial centers, beginning the well-known cycle of high local taxes to prevent decay, leading to a further exodus, and so on.
Meeting young people in their teens and early 20s in the inner cities, the overwhelming impression for someone inculcated with the optimism of the middle class is of their utter lack of aspirations to a better future. The reason? Quite simply, welfare. Not just handouts, but the whole apparatus of government programs that the welfare state has built around the lower-income groups in the inner cities of Britain.
I believe we are about to reap the horrible legacy of 35 years of social democracy, a vicious philosophy that punishes the successful to donate to the unsuccessful, who are then ruined in the process. The youths who storm the streets of Liverpool were bred by parents who have been protected by subsidized housing and subsidized industries; by family, unemployment, and pension benefits; and by all the other "free lunches" of the welfare state. The values of these families have gradually been eroded by a state beneficence that devalues all that a free individual should be striving to secure for himself and his family. This also ensures that the disciplines of holding on to liberty are not passed on to their children.
These children emerge into a world that is decaying because of the rigors of the other side of this beneficence: high taxation, ameliorated by thousands of deductions and exemptions (voted for by the well-off) that make it cheaper for the enterprising to indulge in the conspicuous consumption of Rolls Royces than to risk investment in wealth-creating activities that benefit everyone.
The children who are throwing Molotov cocktails in Liverpool are poor not because they have no money (I know voluntary Christian workers who live on less) but because in terms of human capital they have no wealth—no enterprise, no optimism, and often very little literacy or numeracy. They need not and cannot make investments for the future because investment requires that they forgo consumption. This, as wards of a welfare state, they are not free to do. Thus, they act rationally in choosing to spend other people's money received for nothing. But in doing so, they lock themselves into their low-wealth predicament.
We in Britain are now wasting part of an entire generation. We are creating poor who will stay poor forever. George Gilder, in his book Visible Man, put it well when he said, "What poor people need most is their poverty. You take it away and they stay poor forever.…The problem is that welfare wastes people." Until we remove the welfare burden from the young we cannot help these youths who are disenfranchised from any access to the aspirations that enterprise generates. The answer is not to "do something," but to get out of the way.
Britain has been lucky not to have seen unrest like this before, but that seems to have been due only to unintentional police repression. Our only way out now is to dismantle the welfare state. I fear this will not happen. There will be more riots in Britain.
London-based journalist Eben Wilson was associate producer of Milton Friedman's TV series, Free to Choose. He writes and produces documentaries and dramas.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Bomb Throwing in Britain: Why?".