Social commentary

The unpredicted tinderbox: 3 factors which fuelled the riots

It’s very difficult talking about the reasons for riots during or immediately after they have happened.

People who blame things like poverty, racism, alienation, or the classic ‘there is nothing for the kids to do around here’ sound like they are giving easy excuses for terrible behaviour.

Most people are simply expressing their anger and astonishment at what has suddenly kicked off. On a facebook discussion I read last night someone said “This is not about social problems, it’s about greed and thuggery”. But if greed and thuggery are not social problems, what are?

The thing is that riots always tell us something important about society and what is going on. With the distance of time, they always lead to reflection about what symptoms have led to them.  This was true for the Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 80s which lead to a major change in the way Police relate to communities.

Martin Luther King said that ‘at bottom, riots are always the language of the unheard’.  In the US in the 1950s and 1960s, explicitly racist laws and chronic material poverty meant that whole communities felt unheard and disenfranchised.  In the battle against them King constantly tried to stem the flow of potential violence.  But today, it is wrong to immediately blame these kinds of structural issues because it puts the blame somewhere else – normally with the government.  But today there is a very different way that the rioters are ‘not being heard’ than there was back then.

These disturbances are not ‘isolated incidents by a minority’.  Rather, they are the scary symptoms of a widespread and deep sickness in our society. I believe that a society we are reaping what we have sown – that a tinderbox of issues has been created and it simply needed something to set it off.  That something was the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham but it could easily have been another incident.

I think the tinderbox was created primarily by the following 3 factors:

1) Consumerism – we are a nation which has gorged itself on consumerist values and easy credit which have created poverty and left little room for any sense of true values such as hard work, caring for others, for family and commitment. Like spoilt children who don’t respect their parents, rioters have contempt for the peddlers of these addictions.  That is why they focus on the mobile phone shops, the sport stores and the large corporations.  We have a generation deeply malnourished by a poor diet of technology, violent computer games, bling labels and dysfunctional and disinterested family situations.  I grew up in Croydon and in many ways it is a town centre dedicated to consumerism – endless shops with big windows designed to provoke discontent and increase spending.

2) The lack of moral authority in key institutions – the number of high profile scandals that have hit institutions like the Police, Parliament and the City has hugely undermined the moral authority of the establishment.  It stokes a sense of injustice among many urban young people that they cannot trust the ‘suits’ and that ‘everyone is on the make’.  Free papers now mean that far more people read the headlines about banks paying the ridiculous bonuses, MPs claiming on houses that don’t exist and Police being paid by newspapers.   Surely these are just middle class versions of shop looting? They see ‘the grabbing hands grab all they can’ and believe they are following suit.

3) The collapse of family – there is no way that the Police can stop the numbers of young people who are determined to cause problems.  Policing demands consent and they will always be outnumbered.  What we are seeing is the massive impact of broken and dysfunctional families.  Where are the dads stopping their kids from going out and rioting?  Too often it is left to mums struggling alone who cannot physically stop their children.  A cocktail of poverty, amoral attitudes, both parents having to work and the loss of any sense of personal responsibility means that the traditional barriers to poor behaviour simply don’t exist.  We have been too scared to talk about family breakdown for fear of being judgemental but it is the biggest cause of poverty, exclusion and violence in the UK today.

These are some of the characteristics of a society which is seriously ill.  We need to look full in the face of the problems and grasp their significance before we consider the action required.  For me, this is the time for an authentic Christian spirituality to offer a way forward.  We need to use the language of sin, of repentance, of transformation and of hope and apply it to both institutions and individuals if we are to chart a way back from the mess we are in.

I will end with a quote from US activist Jim Wallis who wrote:

‘The crisis of our times calls for our conversion.  Our structures, values, habits and assumptions are in need of basic transformation.  Neither politics nor piety as we know them will effect such a change.  Rather a new spirituality is required, a spirituality rooted in old traditions but radically applied to our present circumstances’ (The Soul of Politics)

(also relevant to this is the article on this blog Families Valued)

47 thoughts on “The unpredicted tinderbox: 3 factors which fuelled the riots”

  1. Well said Jon, sadly the sprial has been going downwards for groups of people at the same rate it has been going upwards for others ….I too believe we should be encouraged to acknowledge the part family breakdown plays in all of this and feel families should be taking responsibility for their members ….both genetic and spiritual …many of these perpetrators will be dragged along to various churches at the weekend and mock that too ……..


  2. Yes Jon I like what you say.. don’t disagree with the factors you highlight though I might want to add growing inequality (in finances .. which widens the gap between the consumerist dream and what is actually achievable.. in power which widens the disconnect between most of us and those in authority..).. .. The cuts.. and long term underinvestment in such areas and such kids doesn’t help… churches probably do more than most but even their frontier kids are not a priority for ministry… … Breakdown of neighbourhood community as well as family must have significant impact too… community or rather network membership is yet another consumer choice… Then their is testosterone. and the laddish culture.. it’s always (if not exclusively) young males who predominate in these things…and finally of course the whole world is infected by sin..

    Any ideas what we all should do now?


  3. Great Jon. As teacher I see the consequences of a lack of moral authority almost eveyday. Antisocial behaviour gets worse each year but schools feel paralysed to name it and apply any penalties. We have become very concerned with the rights of the child but expect nothing from them in return… something is very wrong… and we are beginning to see a lawless generation as a result.


  4. I agree with Greg . Greed & Thuggary are unquantifiable and unmeasurably vague descriptives . The bottom line is people are crying out because life has become too hard .


    1. life is hard with no values or real meaning. A man’s life does not consist in his possessions. We have to reject the victim mentality where hardship is always someone else’s fault


  5. Nice Jon.
    1) consumerism; a sub section. There is also the gap between what I have and what I want, fed by stream of celebrity lifestyles and aspirational adverts.
    3) Family breakdown. Have to be careful of blaming single parents, kids from homes with both parents are active.
    I would add 4) the loss of Place. The lack of connection an individual has with his/her locality.
    I would add 5) the lack of aspiration, momentum, focus by individuals on achievable goals.

    Smashing things up is a sin. Ripping off expenses is a sin. No ranking of them, please. Confession and forgiveness, mercy and grace, judgement, are all in the mix. Things are getting shaken up guys. do not loose heart, keep praying.

    Worth also saying that rioting has been a feature of London life for 2,000 years. We must do our best – just do not expect easy or quick answers!


  6. So even though we are able to understand and agree, I have a problem to follow then the burning of peoples homes that are occupied, meaning nothing short of cold blooded murder being taken into consideration or the looting of a charity shop. There can be no one argument !


    1. thanks Joan – but where do I do that? I think we have to talk about parents being too busy or too absent to look after their kids adequately without being accused of blaming working mothers. It does not matter who is working and who is caring for the kids but when people do not have enough time to discipline and raise their kids properly society has a major problem – as we have seen.


  7. I had worked out the general collapse of family, and consumer greed burying values that encompass others. I hadn’t seen the dishonesty in Parliament, the media and police as being ‘middle-class looting’ but that’s a fair perspective.
    I would add a fourth factor – employment hopelessness. I have seen the faces in the Jobcentre. Some may not want to work but some do, and the recession has robbed them of that opportunity. Without a vision of employment and feeling significant, these young people are ‘casting off restraint’. Nothing justifies violence and looting, but it points to an urgent piece of work to be done.


  8. I like your analysis, Jon. Here’s a perspective from the USA written a few hours ago -


  9. You make some good points and I enjoyed reading your article. I do feel, however you are a little niave when you say “That is why they focus on the mobile phone shops, the sport stores and the large corporations.” I think it’s a lot more basic than that. The Body Shop is one of the largest retailers in the Country but noone is looting them for their products. The looting is mostly opportunistic. My opinion of course.


  10. Great article – Having grown up in inner city London I would add with the moral authority problem is that the deep in the tinderbox is that some of the deep seated mistrust of the police, the result of an awful minority of police who were corrupt in the neighborhood, who targeted people of color, who harrassed innocent people regardless of color.. We know that in recent decades the Met themselves acknowledged issues such as institutional racism. Those kinds of wounds run deep over the years – and the young people who witnessed and experienced them are now the parents.

    The loss of the extended and nuclear family is huge, because there is no accountability for who you are or what you do or what you represent.

    Weird though it sounds ,what saddens me most is the cuts that have closed places like libraries. When I was a teenager, it was a sanctuary, it was a place which broadened my horizons, and empowered me to look for more from my life. Frankly it was sometimes the distraction and excuse when if my friends were up to no good and I wasn’t bold enough to say no – I could hide there with easy reasons as excuses. It saddens me that we are still talking about the problems and issues and cuts and lawlessness that we spoke about when I was a child.

    These are not surprising, yet desperate times and for the church a time to be more present in our cities than ever.


    1. thanks Jo for your comments. the loss of libraries is tragic – did you hear that last night Waterstones was one of the only shops in one street in Clapham that was not raided.


      1. If you had the opportunity to nick something and the choice was between status symbols like designer clothes, mobile phones, latest flat screen TV and a book I doubt if anyone would have encouraged their mates to make Waterstones pay for their greed!! With great respect the link between libraries and not looting Waterstones is spurious!!


      2. with great respect i think you are right – but along with the Evening Standard’s reading campaign they do say something about what we value


  11. Great article – I agree that relative deprivation fuelled by advertising does lead to envious crime – see data from the USA when TV was rolled out differentially in the states – this led to rising rates of theft in states with TV compared to those without. Secondly, successions of fatherless generations have led to men with childlike temperaments and uncontrolled aggression and drive for adventure – there is an addiction to immediate adrenaline – frankly they must really be enjoying themselves! The moral authority point was well made but I would also comment on the lack of cohesive community – the north East is amongst the most deprived in the country and yet I really doubt we will see anything happening here – as we love our communities and even with absent fathers you dont want to upset the grandparents especially the Nanas!!


  12. Good words……the time has come for the individual to understand their own self worth. We all find ourselves in difficult and tragic circumstances at times in our life. The solution to those issues cannot be found in a social structures, in the government of the day or in education. We are free to chose how we answer. We will always have a choice, no matter the circumstances. Some choose grace others choose anger.

    “What do you choose to do?”


  13. Your analysis, Jon has got to be among the most succinct and thoughtful commentary of the riots I have come across. As long as people view this and similar tragedies through their ideological lenses (both Left and Right) they cannot understand it, for ideology and truth are mutually exclusive, and the very solutions they propose can only aggravate things.

    Relating to your first point, the damage done by consumerism cannot be overemphasized, it fills the young with a sense of utter bleakness, confusion, boredom; nothing to do but consume and produce – as if this were the meaning of life. A violent reaction is inevitable even if the young cannot articulate this, nor consciously know why they do what they do. I remark here that the young in rich and upper-middle class homes channel their frustrations and anger in other ways, no less destructive, just more subtle and hence insidious, for their violence and the violence of ‘respectable’ society is not seen for what it is, thus hardly remarked upon (since sanctioned, even actively encouraged by society). That is a whole other thing..


    1. thanks Larry for your generous words.

      I completely agree about the weakness of the left and right silos on this. Francis Fukyama’s wrote about the End of Politics – that basically the ideological arguements have been won by the free market right wingers after communism collasped – but this leave a deadening vacuum of real meaning and just ‘managerial’ politics. The violence we see is not ideologically driven in the sense that previous riots have been – as you say it is the violence created by emptiness and nihilism.


  14. I know I’m probably going to get shunned for my point of view but, I do have the right to voice my opinion. I will say that I understand and accept the points that John mentioned and explained above. I work with children and I see how they can be affected by their environments and it can affect their cognitive and social development. So, to some extent we shouldn’t be surprised at their behavior; after all they are what they have learned from society.
    However, I have, (and I am still) living in a transitioning third world country for over 20 years, and we have the same issues that every country has if not worse. The media, the billboards, magazines, T.V and radio advertisements…etc. all promote consumerism, but you don’t see the EXTREAMLY poor, who earn less than 50 Sterling pounds a month and have no government subsidizing, medical coverage or housing, taking to the streets, breaking shop windows, stealing and then setting places a blaze just for kicks and endangering the lives of other people?! If that was the case then it would be happening in India, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Egypt, South Africa and many other places. I see hardship, really poverty stricken people and oppression all the time.
    Forgive me if i do not feel sorry or give them the crutch of ‘they lead a tough life’ for the kids in London, and other districts of England as an excuse or a valid reason for their aggressive outbursts of retaliation for the way they live. I have seen much worse off people than them, who don’t know if there will be food on the table at the end of the day and they behave better than them. From what I have seen in pictures and television coverage, those kids are clothed, they don’t look emaciated, they are provided with free education and are not forced in to labor at the age of 5.
    The Morals, ethics and family structures have changed significantly since the 30s. Family is no longer the focal point of people’s lives, living in the fast lane is what matters or having the latest knick-knacks. It’s as though we have all been brain washed in to thinking in a selfish manner.
    The world’s philosophy has changed for the worst in my opinion; honor, respect and duty seem to have lost their place in our daily vocabulary. We have become obsessed with possessions, greed and ourselves. There is little to no respect for senior citizens and definitely none for parents, teachers or learning institutions.
    As a teacher, I work with kids from a range of social classes and i have found many parents are preoccupied with their own trials and tribulations to notice what is or isn’t affecting their own children. Teachers try and teach manners, respect, consideration through PSHE lessons and do some parenting but that isn’t enough and sometimes we are reprimanded for doing that. So, what do we do? How do we resolve this world epidemic of lack of morals?


    1. thank you for your thoughtful and powerful testimony. I think the questions you raise are very important.

      I think the fundamental thing we need is conversion – we need to change. Individuals need to reject values of consumerism and greed and we need the political system to support these values. Families need to be cherished and committment supported and we need to regain a sense of moral duty and true value. For me as a Christian these are what I believe my faith leads me to – I want to see the church in the UK take a lead in living out the teachings of Jesus and encouraging others to join. People need to see a living movement – not an old building.


  15. Thank you John for this thought provoking article. Maybe you should forward a copy of this article to the prime minister,members of his cabinet and all other members of parliment.


  16. Well put ! Now is the time for all Christians of all the denominations , and all people of good will everywhere , to reassert loudly , clearly and in humility and compassion those great , unchanging truths and values that must be put back as the foundations that support all good societies . Moral relativism is the path to destruction . Let us get back to solid values .


  17. All the above are true but they are all missing something. They don’t go quite deep enough into the false sociological and moral teaching in our universities, media and government that has been going on for years in the USA & here in Europe. There has been a deliberate campaign to promote narcissism, erode faith, destroy respect for fatherhood and the family by a group of very influential sociology academics who fled Germany in the 30s & were accepted into the top universities in the USA. They are the known as the Frankfurt School. Their hidden philosophy was Marxism and they, and their disciples, have waged a cultural war against the west ever since. Their names include Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer etc who taught right up to the 70s and whose students now occupy key posts in government and the media.

    Google Bill Muehlenberg and the Frankfurt School for a 1,000 wd essay on the topic and Michael Minnicino for a much more detailed piece od over 10,000 wds.


  18. I have long been arguing and have written to MPs and Prime Ministers in the past that the biggest issue in our society is the breakdown of the family and we must address this but it is not easily solved. The country is spiritually bankrupt, our church leaders basically just talk about liberal, social problems and don’t speak out against sin – however that might be manifested. We need a prophetic voice in our nation bringing God’s perspective to the problems we are facing.


  19. Great article, thanks. Of all the posted comments, my heart is with irishalexandrian3109. I am a youth worker and have always tried to think how God loves every wayward child in the roughest areas in the UK. But to me these riots were something else. The glee and avarice in the eyes and voices of the looters was like nothing I have ever seen before.

    I would love to see those convicted sent out to East Africa a la ‘World’s Strictest Parents’ to dish out some packs of peanut paste and see what real poverty looks like. That sort of experience changes you forever. Well, it did for me.


  20. Led here after your Church Times article was mentioned at church last night. A thought provoking piece that is very well written. The reference to Lily Allens song in the later post is also indicative of the “want want” beast we have created in society.


    1. thanks – yes I think the song captures something incredibly well. I think though the ambivilence is created by the fact that lily Allen is probably also has been captured by the thing she is critiquing!


  21. Interesting article.

    My own view is that the causes of the rioting are inevitably complex and numerous, but I think the three John identifies are all important – especially consumerism. As a society we increasingly seem to focus on material wealth as our only source of status and identity, and we have become more selfish and less compassionate as a result.

    I’d go further than John’s third point though – it’s not just family breakdown, it’s societal. The demise of localism and the increase in technology all mean we have fewer and fewer connections with our local community – we shops at edge of town superstores, not local shops. We commute to work alone in our own cars rather than mixing on public transport, we socialise more through our screens than we do outside our own front doors.

    Whatever the root causes, I think part of the solution will have to be better ‘placemamaking’ of more sustainable communities, that encourage natural mixing across society, hopefully with more trust, tolerance and egalite as a result.

    I’ve expanded on a few of these ideas further in an article on my own blog this morning:


  22. I have found this debate very interesting and some excellent thoughts have been expressed and I particularly agree with the person from the North-East who talks about the importance of a family network of grandparents and other members of the family. Here in Lancashire there is still much the same unit of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins living close to each other that provides the all-important upbringing.

    But as well as the breakdown in family life and values is the lack of the wider ‘family’ – that of friends and neighbours. Growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a child was answerable to more than just its parents. Any lack of manners or misbehaviour outside the home would have been quickly addressed by a friend’s parent, or even by a passing adult, in a verbal way. And of course there was always the threat that your parents would find out! Today society has an attitude of ‘minding it’s own business’ for fear of interfering – or maybe of the consequences? But I believe that everyone has a duty to all children, their own or those of someone else. If children learn from an early age that a certain type of behaviour is not acceptable to others then that can only be for the good. Speaking for myself, there were times when my own children where young that I would have been pleased if a shopper in my local supermarket had chastised one of my children for being ‘cheeky’!

    ‘Minding your own business’ is the easy option: I think that society needs to start poking it’s nose in a little bit more.


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