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London skyline, Aug. 9, 2011 (Lewis Whyld/AP)
London skyline, Aug. 9, 2011 (Lewis Whyld/AP)

Mel Cappe

Britain's unentitled riot at the loss of their future Add to ...

Imagine you’re a parent in London trying to persuade your teenagers to stay home at night and not go out looting. These are poor, unemployed, uneducated kids without a future rioting in London.

Imagine your kids texting their friends trying to decide where to meet and what stores to hit. This is not rioting to make a political point.

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Imagine adults making up shopping lists deciding what colour trainers to steal. This is only partly about spontaneous anarchy.

Imagine being a Canadian tourist and being afraid to go to the Whitechapel Gallery. This is the height of the tourist season in London.

Remember, even William the Conqueror did not loot London.

When I lived in London, Brits were surprised that I found British society so hierarchical and stratified. Most of the elite felt they had come a long way in becoming a postmodern, egalitarian society. A Canadian, proud of our multicultural and mixed ethnic society, found that the Brits still had a long way to go.

Indeed, there is a broad underclass in the U.K. that lives with little hope for the future. Candidate Barack Obama’s books talked of “dreams” and “hope.” For the Brits who are rioting, there’s little of either. They have short time horizons with little invested in their futures. They have little to look forward to. They worry about today while tomorrow is the long run. Next week is irrelevant. Their future is bleak and, like those in war zones, they live for today. Today means the trainers in the store window.

This is not about a lot of things. It is not about the Great Recession of 2008, and it definitely is not about this month’s decline in equity and bond markets. These people did not have their savings wiped out. They already had none.

It is not just about the police shooting of a young black boy, although that is a trigger. They feel that any one of them could have been the victim.

It is not just about London. If it had happened in Bradford and Leeds, I would have understood. But it is not just about the racial divides in the Midlands. And it is not just about the decline of the industrial heartland in the Midlands, either.

It is not poor people going to Mayfair and Kensington to riot and loot the wealthy and upper class. These are people destroying their own neighbourhoods and making it harder for merchants to serve them at home.

It is not just about yobs and criminals. These are also moms taking the time to try on sneakers in the store before taking them.

And this is not about the Olympics destroying their neighbourhoods. Rather, the coming Olympics have rejuvenated East London with projects on time and under budget. But how will the world feel about going to London in 10 months for the Games? Too bad the tickets are not all sold.

To us in Canada, this is inexplicable. Sure we have challenges, but we mostly use politics to deal with them. Even when violence was used, it was mostly as political action. Winnipeg in 1919. Montreal in 1970. Toronto in 2010. (Vancouver in 1994 and 2011 is an outlier.)

But there is no point to London in 2011. The current unrest in Madrid, Athens, Rome and Tel Aviv has political objectives. These are the entitled rioting at the prospective loss of their or others’ entitlements. London has the unentitled rioting at the loss of their future. The continental rioters have purpose and discipline – London’s have none.

But caveat rector. British political leaders have to try to understand not what happened, but why. The Cameron-Clegg government has to bring order first, but then try to respond to the underlying malaise that economic decline, profound structural adjustment and an immigration policy with haphazard integration have caused. It turns out that the veneer of society is so very, very thin. Give them hope for a future, and you might be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

Mel Cappe is a professor of public policy at the University of Toronto and a former high commissioner to the United Kingdom.

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