To some of us, the UK riots defy explanation. To most, however, the explanation’s simple: it’s gangs, thugs, opportunistic thieves, and low-lifes, out for all they can get and all they can wreck. Just like in Vancouver, it was a select few individuals and groups that took something innocuous and turned it into an excuse for violence. It has nothing at all to do with the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK, and the growing sense that people are being left behind by their government, as the cost of essentials rises and cuts run deep.
To blame the riots solely on violent thugs is naïve and simplistic. There is some merit in the theory that group mentality spread the first outbreak like a disease, followed by hot spots across the country flaming into a full-blown epidemic. But ordinary people need more than an anarchistic moment to riot. It requires long-term stress and widespread dissatisfaction to create the political climate in which people across the country to collectively snap. It’s the slowly increasing stress from multiple directions that produced the riot mindset as a response to the tragic, but relatively minor, police shooting incident.
The November protests that erupted in London from the unprecedented hike in tuition fees had an obvious cause and effect, but since then, the chipping away of government help has silently continued. Unemployment has doubled in the UK over the last five years, and the impossible rise in tuition from £0 to £16,000 per year since 1997 has left only the wealthy with the possibility of improving their opportunities, especially as government aid for the needy has been eliminated with the new austerity measures. Health care funding has been slashed by 25 per cent, which is a giant blow to the always under-pressure National Health Service, the country’s healthcare provider. Often complained about, the NHS nevertheless supplies an essential social service; as a Brit, born and raised, the idea of an American-style medical system where the poor are punished is worrying. It probably worries the rioters too.
There’s a reason Scandinavian countries constantly top happiness ratings and lists of “Best Countries to Live.” If you Google “Finnish riots” you get links to a cell phone game company — not scenes of civil unrest. University education is still free in many European countries, with government stipends given to all. Investing in education is seen as good for the country, rather than something an individual does to better themself. Healthcare is similarly socialized, recognized as something essential to all.
That was how it was in the UK in the past. The NHS was set up to slay one of the “five giants” during post-war reconstruction: want, disease, squalor, ignorance, and idleness. Now the UK government is leaving the public to fight the giants on their own, and they’re angry at being left out in the cold. With no help in sight, it’s not surprising that the public’s anger is pouring onto the streets.