Things are hot in London right now. No, we haven’t abandoned our usually underwhelming weather and gone for a US style heatwave. We’re heating up due to (so far) three nights of civil unrest in the city. At least a third of London boroughs have been touched by a mixture of protest, riots and looting that has seen shops destroyed, fires raging and at least one death. Police have been involved in running battles on the street trying to regain control. For those of you who picture London as a genteel place full of bobbies on the beat, double decker buses and tourist attractions this might take you by surprise, but the situation has been brewing gently for quite a while.
London is a big city. Around 7 million people live in the Greater London area and like all big cities, it is populated by a real mix of people. Some say every country in the world is represented here and around 27% of the city’s population were born outside the UK. There is certainly a marked difference in social standing in may of London’s residents. Kensington and Chelsea seems to have nothing in common with Tower Hamlets and Haringay. The fact that all social classes live cheek by jowl in London is one of the things that makes it such a fascinating place to live and visit. But it also makes it a precarious and potent place when things go wrong.
Social inequality has been widening in the UK since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Many of her policies—known here as Thatcherism—mirror those of her close friend Ronald Reagan. The industrial North of England was decimated particularly by the closure of its mines and factories, but the whole country faced high unemployment and recession and things reached a fever pitch in throughout the 80s in London with riots, particularly in working-class neighborhoods like Brixton and Tottenham. Economic uncertainty in those areas was compounded by intense racism on the part of London’s Metropolitan Police created the conditions for rioting that haunts those neighborhoods’ reputations and left civilians and police officers dead and the whole country reeling.
And yet, thirty years later, we appear to be repeating ourselves.