Historian Kate Bradley on the Riots in English Cities

16 08 2011

Kate Bradley is a lecturer in Social History and Social Policy at the University of Kent. Her latest book is Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London, 1918-1979, published by Manchester University Press.

Today, the History & Policy website posted her opinion piece on the recent riots. It shows that these riots were far from unprecedented.

The 1958 Notting Hill riots erupted out of tension from white youths towards the black community, whilst similar disturbances occurred in Nottingham around the same time. Likewise, the riots of the 1980s exploded out of deep tension on the streets between police and young people from ethnic minorities. All emerged from similar strains and distrusts experienced daily, but were triggered by a local ‘spark’ event. In Notting Hill, a group of white teens set about avenging themselves after losing an argument; in Brixton in 1981, people believed the police were failing to help a young man who had been stabbed; in Tottenham in 1986, because Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died during a police raid on her home. A locality is geographically unique, but its social shape can be replicated many times over.

P.S. History & Policy is a unique collaboration between the History Faculty of the University of Cambridge, the Centre for History in Public Health (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) and the Centre for Contemporary British History. Its offices are at King’s College London. 

Since 2006, the H&P website has sought to connect historians doing policy-relevant research to the media and decision-makers in government. Basically, posts on their website boil down the key research findings of historians into short pieces suitable for busy journalists, civil servants, and politicians.

When I was based at a Canadian university I tried to organize a similar website for Canada. Alas, the idea never really got off the ground.  Of course, the problem with ahistorical policymaking isn’t confined to Canada. The mission statement of H&P reads:

We believe that:

  • Too often policy reflects unexamined historical assumptions and clichés
  • History is incorrectly assumed to be less relevant to current policy than the social and natural sciences
  • At best, policy without history fails to learn past lessons and, at worst, repeats past mistakes
  • Given the opportunity, historians can shed light on the causes of current problems and even suggest innovative solutions
  • Historians often have important contributions to make, but need to acquire new information and skills to engage with policymakers
  • There is a reluctance among many policymakers to ‘let historians in’, which needs to be addressed

What Does Economic History Say About The Causes of Riots?

13 08 2011

Rioters in Croydon, 8 August 2011

In the wake of this week’s riots in English cities, some commentators and politicians have linked the youth unrest to the recent budget cuts.

Rioters in Chalk Farm

Two economic historians, Jacopo Ponticelli   and Hans-Joachim Voth, have done a detailed study of riots in Europe in the last century.

Voth and Ponticelli found that for most of this period there was  a strong link between government austerity and urban unrest in Europe. However, since the late 1980s, this statistical relationship has vanished:  in post-industrial societies, there is no longer any measurable link between spending cuts and rioting. The implication is that it was false for people to blame these particular riots on spending cuts.

I’m inclined to think that the recent riots were caused primarily by  non-economic factors.

First, the London riots were sparked by the police shooting of a Black man rather than the announcement of a price rise, wage cut, or other economic news.

Second, I can think of other recent riots in developed countries that were clearly non-economic in motivation: Vancouver, which is one of the most prosperous cities in the Western world right now, recently saw a riot after its hockey team lost a game.

An Idiot Attacks a Car, Vancouver Riots, June 2011

Smoke Rises Over Vancouver After Riots, 15 June 2011. Vancouver judged by The Economist to be the most desirable city on earth in which to live.

Third, riots caused by rises in the price of food, which were common in developed a few centuries ago, are now a thing of the past in such countries. There are no longer “bread riots” in Boston or “rice riots” in Japan.

Aftermath of 1918 Riot in Japan Caused by Rising Rice Prices

Recent Food Riot in Uganda. Ok, the guys in this photo have legitimate grievances.

It appears that as society has become more affluent, the causes of riots have shifted from economic  grievances to post-materialist ones. Needless to say, some post-materialist grievances (e.g., police racism) are far more legitimate than others (your hockey team loses)! But what the Vancouver and London riots have in common is that they appear to be driven primarily by discontent that isn’t strictly speaking economic.

Read more here, here, and here. Professor Voth has blogged about this paper here.

Hat tip to Olaf Storbeck, who is  the London correspondent with Handelsblatt, Germany’s business daily, and a fellow WordPress blogger.

Hans-Joachim Voth  is ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. “He is an economic historian with interests in financial markets, long-run economic growth, as well as political risk and macroeconomic instability.”  I don’t know much about Jacopo Ponticelli, but his Twitter account suggests that he is a grad student.

Laugh for the Day

11 08 2011

Check out “An Open Letter to David Cameron’s Parents” by blogger/comedian Nathaniel Tapley. I like the bit that points out that while Cameron engaged in a minor bit of rioting himself as a young man, he escaped punishment by the Oxford police.  Tapley reminds us that many of the politicians who are criticizing the rioters are themselves guilty of all sorts of ethical transgressions.