The turn of the screw

No matter how much Britain’s ruling elite wants to convince itself and us that the rioting in English cities and towns in August 2011 was an outbreak of ‘criminality pure and simple’, as Prime Minister David Cameron put it, the fact is that riots have always been a feature of capitalist society in crisis. The August riots expressed the depth of the crisis that now faces British imperialism. The ruling class has systematically shifted the burden of solving this crisis onto the backs of the working class and the poor while claiming that ‘we are all in this together’. In reality there is no such thing as ‘we’: the ruling class is willing to abandon every figment of democracy, every notion of ‘human progress’ or ‘equality’, every remnant of civilisation, in order to restore profits. The August riots are the writing on the wall. As the ruling class turns the screw, it is time to fight back.


When Parliament was recalled on 11 August to deal with the aftermath, politicians on all sides scrambled to make the same condemnations of the rioters, to promise severe penalties and to reaffirm their already established plans for disciplining the working class to pay for the capitalist crisis. The similarities between the party statements are no accident: these parties are all the servants of British imperialism. So, Prime Minister Cameron reiterated a tranche of ‘reforms’ ostensibly aimed at the high moral ground of ‘mending our broken society’, but in reality attacking the working class, and in particular its poorest sections:

‘For years we’ve had a [welfare] system that encourages the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work … above all that drains responsibility away from people … I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who are out of work and receiving benefits…’

Labour leader Ed Miliband, after calling for swift justice and tough sentences for ‘horrendous criminal acts’, lamented: ‘… the take-what-you-can culture that needs to change from the benefits office to the boardroom’. In fact the last Labour government only targeted the benefits system. The ‘boardrooms’, like the banks, have been free of any regulation by Labour and Tory governments alike.

Since the August riots, Coalition ministers have threatened wider punishments on working class communities, alongside the raft of sanctions already announced in the October 2010 spending review. The review promised to cut housing benefit, incapacity benefits for disabled and sick people, benefits for single parents and education maintenance allowance for school students aged 16-18. Parliament has so far failed to oppose any of these measures despite their proven discrimination against the poorest communities. Local councils across the country, Labour, Tory and LibDem alike, have imposed the spending review cuts with vigour against their most vulnerable constituents. Some London borough councils, including Labour-controlled Greenwich and Southwark, have threatened to evict any council tenants and their families convicted of charges arising from the riots. Maite de la Calva, a Wandsworth council tenant with an eight-year-old daughter who has been threatened with eviction by the local council because of riot charges against her 18-year-old son, described the council as ‘behaving like fascists’. She is absolutely right. Such community punishments would certainly breach human rights, but Cameron has already flagged up the government’s intention to rid itself of this impediment:

‘… in this country we are proud to stand up for human rights, at home and abroad. It is part of the British tradition. But what is alien to our tradition – and now exerting such a corrosive influence on behaviour and morality … is the twisting and misrepresenting of human rights in a way that has undermined personal responsibility.’

This is the opposite of the truth. The British imperialist tradition is to bomb, torture, oppress and exploit at home and abroad. Human rights are dispensible: profits are not.

Attempts to argue that the riots were not fuelled by poverty and deprivation were swiftly proved wrong when the Institute for Public Policy Research published analysis on 16 August showing that the areas affected by the riots had rates of youth unemployment and child poverty significantly higher than average. In the London borough of Hackney, for instance, youth unemployment is almost double the UK average. In London as a whole, taking into account housing costs, 38% of children live in poverty compared to a national figure of 20% – in itself a disgrace.

The corollary to this government-imposed economic and social deprivation is intensifying the repression that is led by the police and criminal justice system (see p9). Police stop and searches have increased 70% in the last five years, and it is the youth in the riot-affected areas who have overwhelmingly been the targets. In England and Wales, black people are at least six times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police as white people. Asian people are around twice as likely. Against the background of government cuts to welfare benefits and rapidly rising unemployment, especially among young people, it is plain to see that the pressures experienced by working class families are explosive.

So who is going to take the side of working class people struggling to survive against this onslaught? Certainly not the main political parties which have concentrated with slave-like devotion on ticking boxes for British imperialism. What then of those who claim to represent the working class – the trade union movement? For months they have promised to launch an action campaign to defend jobs and pensions in the public sector. So far only one national day of action has been held. The promises are beginning to wear thin, and the newly awakened militancy of trade union members at the TUC Congress in September is threatening to expose the feebleness of its leaders. To fill the breach, Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, renewed promises of uncompromising ‘civil disobedience’ for the coming autumn and winter. At the same time he reassured his political masters and warned any potential militants who might overstep the mark that: ‘[last month’s riots and looting were] the exact opposite of community spirit, collectivism and what trade unionism is all about’. FRFI supports any movement that is prepared to take up an uncompromising fight against the cuts, but the fault lines are clear: if pushed the unions will defend workers with jobs and the privileges that go with those jobs. The fight to defend the most oppressed sections of the working class will be a different matter.

The ruling class is engaged in class war, and millions of ordinary people are being forced to pay for the crisis while the banks, the big institutions, utility companies and multinationals, and the political elite themselves expand their profit margins, expense accounts, bonuses and pensions.

The ruling class argues that there is no excuse for rioting and looting. This is like saying there is no excuse for the weather. The more the ruling class turns the screw on working class and oppressed communities, the more likely there are to be riots and looting and the more reason there is to fight back. FRFI is involved in defence campaigns in Tottenham, Hackney and Southwark that aim to defend anyone charged with riot offences and their families from victimisation by a pernicious and vengeful state. Anyone claiming to be a socialist will be joining them.


Carol Brickley


Rise like lions – Peterloo riots

‘Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy

Written on the occasion of the Peterloo massacre, Manchester, 16 August 1819

On 16 August 1819, almost 200 years ago, magistrates read the Riot Act at a large assembly of working class people in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The crowds were assembling for an open air meeting calling for reform of the corrupt parliamentary election system which deprived the people of Manchester and the surrounding towns of any political representation. The cowardly magistrates sent in armed troops on horseback who attacked the demonstrators with swords. A woman living nearby said she saw ‘a very great deal of blood’. 15 people were massacred and up to 700 injured. A contemporary account read:

‘For some time afterwards there was rioting in the streets, most seriously at New Cross, where troops fired on a crowd attacking a shop belonging to someone rumoured to have taken one of the women reformers’ flags as a souvenir. Peace was not restored in Manchester until the next morning, and in Stockport and Macclesfield rioting continued on the 17th. There was also a major riot in Oldham that day, during which one person was shot and wounded.’

Within weeks of the massacre, all the reformers associated with the demonstration had been tried for sedition, found guilty and put in prison. Troops involved in the massacre were put on trial but found not guilty because ‘they were dispersing an illegal gathering’. The government and the King congratulated the magistrates, and in the period following the massacre repressive laws, known as the Six Acts, were introduced to deter opposition to government rule. Most importantly the Misdemeanours Act increased the speed of the administration of justice by reducing the opportunities for bail and allowing for speedier court hearings and the Seditious Meetings Prevention Act required the permission of a sheriff or magistrate to convene any public meeting of more than 50 people about ‘church or state’ matters. The Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act (or Criminal Libel Act) introduced more punitive sentences for libel – a law designed, then as now, to protect the elite. The maximum sentence was increased to 14 years transportation to Australia.

Despite all attempts to quell dissent, the massacre is still remembered as a clear example of the depravity of the ruling class and as a milestone in British working class history. 200 years later and the ruling class response to riots is once again to try to suppress working class opposition to its rule with brute force.

Carol Brickley

FRFI 223 October/November 2011


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