Monday, 15 August 2011

The riots and lawlessness

The great historian Conrad Russell once wrote:

"In investigating causes, the first necessity is to match them with effects, and it therefore seems a logical priority to begin by trying to establish the effects for which causes must be found.

"If the effects are wrongly postulated, the causes will be wrong also.

"If we discuss causes without any investigation of effects, we are simply indulging in unverifiable speculation."

Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (1990)

A great deal of the punditry, and the statements of politicians, since the riots of last week seem not to be based on any clear view of what is actually to be explained.

The socio-economic determinists will emphasise poverty and the "cuts". However, there will be little effort in setting out any direct lines of causation to what took place.

I happen to come from a working class/council estate/comprehensive school background, and I am instinctively averse to any easy link between socio-economic predicaments and unlawful behaviour. Indeed, most of the people who live on council estates, or are impoverished in other urban environments, are more likely to disproportionately suffer from lawlessness rather than indulge in it.

I cannot see how any socio-economic predicament is more or less likely to make one commit a criminal act in any given situation.

Of course, the horrifying poverty and lack of social mobility in many communities is quite real; but I deny that by itself it caused a single thing to be looted or damaged over the last week.

I would like to put forward an alternative point of view, in accordance with Russell's wise words above.

What needs to be explained is the lawlessness, not the socio-economic characteristics of those involved.

A number of people - between one and two thousand it seems - seem to have committed criminal acts last week in connection with the riots. These people, of course, are a minority of all those who committed criminal acts last week, but their criminality was concentrated and under the media glare.

People commit criminal acts for a number of reasons. For example, career criminals do it and see getting caught as an "occupational hazard"; and some people genuinely do not realise what they are doing is a criminal offence. However, these two explanations do not seem to fit the looters and rioters of last week.

Many people commit criminal acts because they believe they will not get caught: that they will "get away with it". Others think that it is acceptable to commit certain types of criminal act: they simply do not care if it is criminal. In both these cases, detection and prosecution always comes as a bit of a shock. It appears that a number of those "caught up" in the riots fit into these categories.

Why are some people likely not to take the law sufficiently seriously so not to regulate their actions so as to avoid criminal liability?

To my mind, the answer to that question is that in this country there is a general disregard for strict adherence to the law.

The journalist Peter Oborne comes close to this in his spirited attack last week on the morality of the political class.

But is not just the politicians.

For every dodgy expense ever claimed by an MP, there is some expense authorised by a newspaper executive for some unlawful intrusion to take place and some tabloid journalist who has paid some corrupt police officer.

And all this, in my view, goes beyond the political, media, and law enforcement classes: people will break the law if they think they can get away with it or think it is "acceptable", from defying speeding limits to dropping litter.

There is a general buzz of lawless behaviour throughout society.

If this is the case, then the riots must be explained in part by a lack of respect for the law for those involved. The riots then provided a sudden and unexpected opportunity for lawless behaviour: a window of opportunity, as it were.

(There is an old joke that some people need a reason for sex, whilst others just need an opportunity. The same surely goes for unlawful behaviour.)

And so if the problem is in part a lack of respect for the law, and a casual tolerance for unlawful behaviour, then I would suggest that the answer is not necessarily more laws and excessive penalties. Although this would have the misconceived attraction of a "crack-down" it would also tend to make the law and justice system seem arbitrary and illiberal.

If a cause of unlawful behaviour is that some people do not respect the law, then part of the answer is to endorse and assert the principles of the rule of law, proportionality, and due process, and to show people that the law is worthy of respect.

Otherwise, we are only making it worse for ourselves.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Bill said...

And hasn't that always been the case? We're a fundamentally rebellious - and riotous - people. The Victorian/Edwardian ideal of the law-abiding English is a myth; below the surface the average Englishman is as passionate and irrational as any hot-blooded Latin.

Bit too busy to comment in detail, but can I recommend a look at David Horspool's book "The English Rebel"? He covers pretty much all major disorder from Hereward the Wake to the Brixton riots - very readable and interesting.

Adam Richards said...

Yet questions regarding general respect for the law and the likelihood of getting caught do cut across social groups - those working in respectable professions have broken the speeding limit, driven when they've been over the limit, falsely over-claimed on insurance, been involved in, or at least aware of, insider-dealing etc etc.

However, this article poses more questions than answers - the key to getting to the root of any problem is to keep asking why until you can ask why no more. Obvious follow on questions include why is there a lack of respect for the law and a casual tolerance of unlawful behaviour? Why is that, (while there are exceptions) the majority of those looting were male youths, who appear not to be working. Why was it not married 40 year old female accountants, doctors, HR managers, etc who were rioting?

Data on looters in court: (

Tony Lloyd said...

Respect for the law also depends on the law being respectable.

It has been said that prohibition that taught the Americans disresect for the law: illiberal laws breed contempt.

We have illiberal and, in effect, arbitrary laws. The Twitter joke trial has brought the whole of the "Justice" system into disrepute. Powers either given to, or taken by, police to prevent photographers taking photgraphs in a public place. People being arrested for filming a public meeting. The kettling of demonstrators. The prohibition on drugs. The transparent design of laws, ostensibly to protect prostitutes, as laws to discourage the sex trade per se.

We have laws grown up from successive goverments wishing to govern our behaviour: a set of instructions seeking to secure ends rather than boundries within which we pursue our own.

Let us reform the law to, as far as possible, secure a set of rules for living together which we can all understand and (for the most part) agree with.

Then let us enforce them.

Rhianon Jameson said...

I was nodding along as I read - right up until the end. Although you likely didn't intend it to be read this way, your piece has a flavor of making excuses for unlawful behavior. "Politicians are crooks, so it's okay for me to loot."

Also missing from this explanation, though I, too, offer none, is why this behavior took place at the time it did. Although the initial riots appeared to use the cover of the Tottenham protest, one might reasonably ask: why then? Why did the riots spread?

Lastly, you dismiss the idea of a "crackdown," by which I presume you mean strictly enforcing laws regarding theft, destruction of property, and so on. It is absurd to think that one set of law violations (those among the political classes) in any way justifies or excuses a different set of law violations. Perhaps respect for the law comes in part when the likelihood of being caught and punished for a crime is sufficiently high for participants to take notice.

Tony Lloyd said...

And in support of my argument I'm going to bring out George Orwell. From his article "The Moon Under Water":

And though, strictly speaking, they are only allowed in the garden, the children tend to seep into the pub and even to fetch drinks for their parents. This, I believe, is against the law, but it is a law that deserves to be broken, for it is the puritanical nonsense of excluding children —and therefore, to some extent, women—from pubs that has turned these places into mere boozing-shops instead of the family gathering-places that they ought to be. (my emphasis)

Bad law will breed lawlessness in decent people.

Dominic Sayers said...

Thank you for reminding me, in your paragraph on career criminals, of the titles for Porridge:

"Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences — you will go to prison for five years."

@DT_1975 said...

Brilliant post, as usual, but I do slightly disagree with your belief that:

"To my mind, the answer to that question is that in this country there is a general disregard for strict adherence to the law."

My position is that the general disregard for strict adherence to the law is actually quite healthy and it can be the police and CPS' sometimes over-zealously strict adherence to the letter of the law that undermines the legal system as much as,for example the phone hacking, and expenses scandles.

In my opinon, the #twitterjoketrial is a very good example of this.

Christine Burns said...

The thing that troubles me about your assertion about general low-level (socially acceptable) law breaking is that, by comparison to our European neighbours, Britain is (administratively) one of the most diligent followers of the law.

Other european countries will sign up to EC legislation and then turn a blind eye to implementing it, whereas we seem to be far more determined to transpose every dot and comma of EC directives into domestic law.

Likewise at a personal / community level, people in countries such as Italy tend to ask themselves what was in the mind of the lawmaker when deciding what to do and whether to prosecute infractions, whereas the British way is to treat strict liability cases as just that. An Italian driver faced with a red traffic light on a deserted junction at 3am in the morning would be minded to proceed (and would not expect prosecution) whereas a British driver and the Police officer watching them would be more likely to regard the letter of the law.

If your thesis were correct about little infractions spawning larger ones then one would therefore expect to see a far greater level of general lawlessness across Europe. In fact, I suspect the truth is the opposite: that a pragmatic regard for the point of the law gives rise to greater respect for it, and an understanding of where the line should be drawn

Steve Jones said...

"To my mind, the answer to that question is that in this country there is a general disregard for strict adherence to the law."

I'm sorry David, but of all the ways of ways to measure what is wrong with the moral conduct of people, failing to comply strictly to law is surely one of the least. There are plenty of ways to be an inconsiderate citizen within the law, as well as ways to be a good citizen outside. It's worth reminding people that some activities which used to be illegal (male homosexual acts, off-course betting etc) are now full legal. Some relatively benign activities, such as "ripping" MP3s from CDs you own, are still technically illegal (albeit civil, rather than criminal).

Personally, I think that societies are better defined by values and principles and not rules. The criminal law is certainly required for those who either don't care for shared social values, but that should be the exception. Personally I do not think of what the law says if I find a wallet lying in the street. I suspect a society where people stuck rigidly to the law and had no moral sense would be an extremely unpleasant one.

However, it does have to be recognised, that in times when civil order breaks down, very often human beings will behave in ways they would never do normally. This is a feature of group behaviour and dynamics and has precious little to do with regard to formal rules. Indeed it would seem that many get suckered into the idea that normal social standards do not apply. It is amazing what a surprisingly large proportion of population will engage in when these norms have apparently gone. At its most extreme, this was seen by those involved in the mass crimes of the Nazis in WWII or the behaviour of the Red Army in Berlin.

However, it does not appear that all those involved with the riots were just carried away by the moment. From reports hundreds of those charged are out on parole, and it does seem there was a hard core of opportunist criminal gangs. For those, the criminal law is the only real protection.

nb. this is not to deny something has to be done about the minority of the young who are now unemployed, and in some cases are literally unemployable. Society will always have a proportion of those who've fallen through the system, but it cannot do so when a critical proportion of the young see no hope and have no aspirations.

I should also declare myself as being raised as working class and bought up on a council estate, albeit grammar school educated. I'm one of that generation of upwardly mobile working class kids in the couple of decades after the war, many of whom are now comfortably middle-class in outlook.

ProstheticHead said...

If we are ever to increase respect for the law then we need laws which are 'respectable'.

At present there are far too many laws which are either too broad, subjective or do not have any discernible connection to any consequentialist morality. If law makers insist on allowing the law to an ass in either reality or perception then it will be treated with contempt where people believe they will 'get away with it'.

A few examples which spring to mind are;

Copyright laws which prohibit actions which a sizable majority of the population engage in on a regualr basis (I don't just mean 'piracy', but format shifiting of content you've legitimatly purchaced such as copying a CD to your MP3 player). Don't even get me started on the digital economy act. Not only does this make many well meaning people law breakers, it shows that laws can be made as a result of transparently unbalanced lobbying by business interests at the expense of the public interest. This harms respect for the rule of law.

The 'twitter joke trial' debacle.

Over broard and constantly miss applied 'anti-terror' and 'public order' legislation.

The use of covert surveilence in situations which clearly do not justify it (Mark Kennidy, RIPA abuses, etc).

Policy on drug use which seems to stem from hypocritical moralising rather than an evidence based approach to harm reduction. The same could be said for the treatment of sex workers.

That list just took me ~3 mins to come up with, I'm sure others have constructed better catalogues of legislative failure.

In addition to the above, real or percieved uneven application of laws is yet another feature which I'd postulate has acted to undermine respect for law. Again their are numerous examples one could cite. I'll just say stop and search rates in black men and leave it there.

Lastly, the processes & discissions involved in making and applying laws seem very opaque and disconnected from the lives of the majority. Understanding of and respect for the law are surely linked?

ceebs said...

If we wish to blame a general disregard for the law, then we must look at the misuse of drugs act. Current government figures show that there are between two and five million people who are regular drug users, however other sources give a figure at twice this level.

Surely giving 10% of your population contempt for the law by arbitrary restrictions that aren't based on any evidence can only erode the social order.

M. Goold said...

I'm afraid I think your analysis is way off for two reasons.

Firstly, considering that you started the article by criticising the understanding of causation of the many armchair political commentators that have arisen from the aftermath of the riots, your own explanation of causation is surprisingly flimsy. Even assuming you’re right (which I’m not certain of myself) when you say there is a general lack of respect for the law in society, that cannot be a cause in itself. Lack of respect for the law would simply mean that whatever cause was pushing a person to riot was not being resisted by respect/fear of the law. It doesn’t explain the cause itself.

Secondly, discounting the rioters’ “socio-economic predicaments” as a cause seems to ignore undeniable evidence that such factors were in fact relevant. If not, and if it was in fact, as you say, a general lack of respect for the law that was the cause, why was the rioting concentrated in deprived areas? Why did it start in Tottenham, one of the poorest areas in London, and hit Wood Green, Brixton and Hackney rather than Kensington or Hampstead?

I understand your reluctance to draw an “easy-link between socio-economic predicaments and unlawful behaviour.” It would obviously be inaccurate and deeply offensive to say that poverty necessarily turns people to criminal activity. However, that is not to say that poverty, disenfranchisement and a perception by many people of a seeming lack of any prospects to improve their lot in life were not in any way relevant. Riots are – or at least start as – an expression of anger. It may be true that some “opportunists” only got involved last weekend because they wanted a free TV, but the origin was an expression of anger and frustration by a community that was being ignored. The alienation and anger felt by people because of their “socio-economic predicaments” was clearly a relevant cause of that expression of anger.

M. Goold said...

As an addendum, this piece by Gary Younge is a far more insightful piece into the context and causation of the riots, I believe:

Tony Lorusso said...

The point is not that members of the public who commit immoral acts of theft and violence should not be held accountable for their actions. They should. It's that government, which does far worse. Isn't.

We need to put government on trial. Because the looters and rioters are amateurs next to the government when it comes to killing, theft and property damage.

Just ask an Iraqi about what Britain (with others) did to their land in the name of "liberty".

Until people do that any condemnation of the London looters will continue to be seen by the people condemned as utter hypocrisy.

Do as we say, not as we do. That's the message we're sending.

@DT_1975 said...

Sorry M. Goold but your analysis doesn't hold water. The majority of people within the same socio-economic group did not riot, loot, or violently assault anyone. Additionally, many of those arrested for rioting did not come from the same disenfranchised environment you are associating with the riots, so the evidence would not point to a causal link, even though there is a correlation.

I really think you need to look past the socio-economic dogma on this. To do otherwise is to ignore and insult the vast majority of people who in Tottenham, Wood Green, and Hackney.

Anthony Smith said...

Maybe it's not so much a problem with the law, but with the other "you must..." messages that we are all bombarded with - "you must have an iPhone/laptop/Nike trainers" (in order to have a meaningful life). It doesn't take much unrest for these to trump the "you must obey the law" messages.

M. Goold said...

Re: @DT_1975 – yes the majority of people in the same circumstances didn’t riot, but that doesn’t weaken my argument. A majority of people in any situation are going to be opposed to carrying out wanton destruction and violence. Also, as I said, of course unemployment and lack of resources don’t necessarily lead people to criminal activity. However, the fact that all the riots occurred in areas where there are concentrations of deprivation is pretty clear evidence of a causal link. I’m afraid I can’t answer your point about those arrested not being from the same environment as I haven’t seen much information on that.

Living in a particular area doesn’t say anything definite about your character or circumstances. Therefore I’m not suggesting anything about people in Tottenham (where I myself live), Wood Green or Hackney generally and I certainly didn’t mean to insult anyone.

Fiona Hanley said...

I think there's a lot in Antony Smith's comment. Our economy is kept buoyant by a fashion for hyper-consumerism. A 'want want want' culture especially amongst the young. I think I was lucky to come of age at a time when by fashion and necessity you thought you were only fabulous in Doc Martens, Kohl and your Dad's jumper. Returning to teach a Masters years later, it really struck me how much 'stuff' the students had. New clothes all the time, groomed hair, makeup, magazines, gadgets. Is it any wonder that this yearning for stuff, fuelled by advertising and pop culture, for a few nights only became 'take, take, take'?
Another recent enough unwelcome development is the demeaning of the young, poor and ambitious by the likes of X-Factor. Maybe I'm being reactionary, it just seems like it's a lot harder in so many ways to be young and poor now than it did when I was young and poor.

DT_1975 said...

RE: M. Goold

Actually it does weaken your argument. If poverty and deprivation were a primary causal factor in the riots then we would have seen the vast majority of people living in those conditions rioting. This is the meaning of causation: one thing, i.e. poverty leads to the other, i.e. the rioting. The fact that so few people (hundreds out of millions) who live in poverty rioted and looted would imply that either another factor is dominant or that at least one additional factor is required to trigger these attitudes and behaviours.

To me, the fact that so many people who rioted and looted came from those poor, deprived areas implies the that the same factors that made people feel it is OK to riot and loot, also make them poor and deprived.

Sorry if I implied you were insulting people who live in those areas. That wasn't my intention. Growing up on the edges of Wood Green, I know the area pretty well and strongly believe that the poverty issue is a major red herring based on doctrine and socio-economic dogma. If we continue to follow that route, we will spend lots of money and still be in the same situation in 10 years time.

Sorry, that's a bit longer than I intended. Its a bit of a brain dump before dinner.

Tony Lloyd said...

"I was lucky to come of age at a time when by fashion and necessity you thought you were only fabulous in Doc Martens, Kohl and your Dad's jumper."

Fiona! You're being a grumpy old whatever.

Of course, you're absolutely right.

Fiona said...

Excellent writing as always. To add to what you have said, I think young people need access to understand what is right and wrong and people need to take more responsibility for their local communities. Exactly how this happens I don't know as I am not an expert. Not all parents, and I feel confident it is a minority, teach their children this, they prefer instead to tell them what they can get away with. I have cautiously pointed out in the past to a child with their parent that I think they have accidently dropped something (when it has been obvious it was deliberately discarded) and hand the offending sweet wrapper to them, only to get vitriol from the parent that their child has the right to do what they want. That child will continue to litter. I have parked on my mother's driveway, only to be blocked in by a parent who has parked across the driveway to be near the local school for pick up time, half an hour before they are due to pick their child up, I politely ask them to move for one minute so I can get out but they refuse to move as they are selfish. These may be examples of minor offences and anti-social attitudes but the sort of attitude displayed by the parent will rub off on the child and apply to other aspects of their life and make the community a worse place. I have also spoken to people about this and asked them what they do for their communities to make it a better place and many are stumped or claim it is someone else’s or the Government’s job to do this. I served five years on a resident’s association and five years as brownie pack leader and now work with young children at the weekends, all with a full time job and a family at home. Too many people now have no sense of responsibility or community, we need to give them a stake in their community, outside of gangs, so they can regain that important building block to an unbroken Britain.

Laurence said...

I'm having difficulty squaring:

Indeed, most of the people who live on council estates, or are impoverished in other urban environments, are more likely ... disproportionately [to] suffer from lawlessness rather than indulge in it.

With the denial of a

link between socio-economic predicaments and unlawful behaviour.

Do those in "socio-economic predicaments" have to travel away from home to suffer lawlessness?

WillORNG said...

If we'd had full employment since 1970s instead of mass unemployment, how much difference would this have made, if society was more equal as in say Nordic countries?

In Norway they have a JET Job Education Training Guarantee for the young and those out of work for 26 weeks, better still make it 4.

Can this country 'afford' to continue this ruinously high cost, low benefit, low value for money socio-political economic experiment?

Tony Lorusso said...


The scheme, by design will slowly and irreversibly destroy the private sector's ability to generate jobs because every penny taken in taxes from businesses that are providing jobs, will make them less able to provide jobs.

But even if that's not true by taking the money by force (taxes) you lose the argument. Because then you are pointing the gun of the state at people and saying, "doesn't matter if you agree we are doing it my way."

Why not be honest, skip the arguments and point a gun at people's heads to get them to comply?

If this is such a great idea then test it by setting up a charity version of the scheme, and use the arguments in the policy to persuade people to donate. After all if such a scheme would be such a great benefit to everybody as the policy argues, people will see the advantage to themselves and be falling over-themselves to contribute.

If it fails then we will know empirically that force is the only way everybody can be "persuaded" to do this and that these arguments are just sophistic window dressing to hide the gun you want pointed at people to bend them to your wishes.

At that point you become no better than those looters, who take what they want by force. What you do with what you take afterwards doesn't make taking it by force moral.