The competing arguments used to explain the riots

Car on fire in Birmingham

Many theories have been posited about the underlying causes of the riots in England - from moral decay to excessive consumerism. Here two criminologists give their views on some of the arguments.

Welfare dependence

Sir Max Hastings, in an article for the Daily Mail, focused on "a perverted social ethos, which elevates personal freedom to an absolute, and denies the underclass the discipline - tough love - which alone might enable some of its members to escape from the swamp of dependency in which they live".

There is a culture of entitlement in the UK, says David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and a former prison governor.

"But it's not just about the underclass - it's about politicians, it's about bankers, it's about footballers.

"It's not just about a particular class, it permeates all levels of society. When we see politicians claiming for flat-screen TVs and getting jailed for fiddling their expenses, it's clear that young people of all classes aren't being given appropriate leadership."

Social exclusion

Writing in the Independent, Kids Company charity founder Camila Batmanghelidjh blamed a society in which the "established community is perceived to provide nothing... It's not one occasional attack on dignity, it's a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession".

Studies do suggest that living in areas of social deprivation could be a factor, says Marian FitzGerald, visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent.

"But the socially excluded are not always the ones who are rioting - in fact they are often the ones who are most vulnerable to riots. We need a better thought-out approach rather than just using social exclusion as an excuse."

Lack of fathers

According to Cristina Odone of the Daily Telegraph, the riots could be traced back to a lack of male role models: "Like the overwhelming majority of youth offenders behind bars, these gang members have one thing in common: no father at home."

"I brought up two boys on my own," says Prof FitzGerald. "Yes, there are some issues about where boys get a positive sense of masculinity from when they don't have anyone in the home to give it. But if you have a stable family set-up then these kids can still be very high-achieving."

Spending cuts

Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight, Labour's candidate for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, suggested that austerity measures were responsible: "If you're making massive cuts, there's always the potential for this sort of revolt against that."

It's too soon to say this, Prof FitzGerald says. "The full implementation of the cuts to local authority services that will have the biggest impact on these areas will not be fully felt until next year.

"However, it may be that because there's been so much talk about police spending cuts, the rioters may have internalised the message that they're less likely to be caught."

Weak policing

In a leader, the Sun newspaper said it was "crazy" that water cannon was not available to officers, and that parliament "must not be squeamish" about the use of tear gas and baton rounds.

There has also been discussion about the impact of the fall-out from criticism of policing during the G20 protests in London in 2009. Some commentators have suggested officers might be afraid of taking on the rioters directly for fear of legal action.

It may have made some difference if the rioters had been more immediately engaged with a more robust form of policing, says Prof Wilson.

"Several of the rioters who were interviewed clearly enjoyed the feeling of being powerful. They were encouraged to feel that the cities in which they were misbehaving belonged to them.

"However, I don't think that has anything to do with political correctness. What has characterised British justice over the past 25-30 years is the large numbers of young people we have sent to prison compared with our European neighbours."


Violence began in Tottenham on Saturday after the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. Christina Patterson of the Independent said the race factor could not be overlooked: "Too many black men have been killed by the police. Too many black men and women have been treated like criminals when they're not. This is not the cause of these riots, but it's there in the mix."

Police shootings are very rare, Prof FitzGerald notes.

"According to IPCC reports in the last three years there have only been seven and all of those - including the shooting of Raoul Moat - were of white people.

"The Met police has seen huge changes in attitude since the Macpherson report. That said, its use of section 60 stop-and-search powers disproportionately brought normally law-abiding young black people in particular into potentially confrontational encounters with the police.

"However, this is not true of many of the other police forces who are now facing similar threats to public order - so it cannot be used as any sort of excuse."

Gangsta rap and culture

Paul Routledge of the Daily Mirror blamed "the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs".

It's certainly clear that gang culture is a real phenomenon, says Prof Wilson.

"I once interviewed a boy who said 'just because I like the music doesn't mean I agree with the lyrics', which is true," says Prof FitzGerald. "But it may be a factor when it comes to those who may be particularly susceptible."


"These are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices," insisted Zoe Williams of the Guardian. She added: "This is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it."

In studies of street crime, this has been shown to be a factor, says Prof FitzGerald.

"But with the recent riots, I'm not so sure - in the context of looting, it's about taking what you can. As well as mobile phones and clothes, there were plenty stealing petty things like sweets and cans of beer."


"As more and more people became embroiled in the riots, others have been tempted to join them, confident that one unexceptional individual in a sea of hundreds is unlikely to be caught or to face retribution," according to Carolina Bracken writing in the Irish Times.

This is credible, says Prof Wilson. "Opportunism, mixed with a sense of being in a big gang, will have enticed many who wouldn't necessarily do something like this normally.

"Also significant is the feeling of invulnerability because they are part of something so big. Also linked to this is the feeling of doing something transgressive and feeling powerful in a culture where they don't have much power.

Technology and social networking

"Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality," Steve Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, told reporters.

This is an under-explored phenomenon, suggests Prof Wilson.

"For years we've been aware of gangs and football hooligans have been using technology to get together and fight. I think the police have been quite slow to respond to this.

"But as we know, mobile phones can also be used to counteract criminality and to an extent I think that's something the police prefer to downplay."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1809.

    True Andy, and why are they bored and disenchanted? Decreasing education progression prospects, a dwindling economy, and inequalities regarding the apparent application of expectations for public vs government?

    Labelling these people as deviants, criminals and thugs will do nothing to solve the issues long term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1808.

    Its not about race; lack of fathers; gang culture blah blah its because there is no fear or discipline.Too many do gooders have taken away disciplining powers of parents teachers police; courts etc all those who give kids a good moral grounding!! The police stood by because we made them by previously suing/criticising them for their actions!! You cant have it both ways!!! Power to the right people

  • rate this

    Comment number 1807.

    Tom I agree. Some people like to have a scapegoat and cannot admit the plain truth - it was people who live here who went on the rampage looting and using violence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1806.


    Powell's actual words were: "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see "the River Tiber foaming with much blood."

    Only one river. With blood in it.

    The Rivers of Blood expression is a misnomer, let's get it right please. Perhaps we should call it 'The River Tiber Speech'. But let's not do anything to decrease the melodrama in these times, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1805.

    I believe there are many reasons for the riots not just one.
    some you may not agree with but they all play a small part in the larger picture.
    teenagers are bored. with nothing to do, I can hear some of you saying " we were teenagers once and we wern't bored"
    things have changed since we were teenagers.
    there is no longer a stong community spirit.
    thats all i can add, over chariacter limit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1804.

    There is an old saw that goes this way" A traveller fell among thieves two social workers passing by and on seeing him one says to the other "The man who did this needs our help".There is a moral here but I know not what

  • Comment number 1803.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1802.

    Why always blamed the immigrants? Most Immigrants cannot speak proper English and did not had or little education in their own homeland. They can find job here. Most looters born here with free education and claimed cannot find job, why? It is because there is no such job as doing nothing with a lot of money. Most people starting at the bottom and work their way up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1801.

    1796 Florian Geyer
    Why on earth are you banging on about genocide???
    It has no place here. Keep your ugly views and nasty little agenda to yourself!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1800.

    Interesting to see that the BBC does not consider their incessant 24 hour 'news' coverage a factor in the riot contagion that took place. Whilst not a root cause, there's not doubt in my mind that irresponsible journalism is a component of why the riots took hold on the scale they did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1799.

    I see Great Britain is becoming one inflated Daily Mail reader. Glad I moved to Germany (odd thing to say).Germans are hearing the responces to these riots, and while the do not condone such activity, they are flabbergasted by the general tone and by the unwillingness by the government to examine the true causes."Lock the sick ones up" solves nothing as a general stance. The Germans should know!

  • Comment number 1798.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1797.

    Just yesterday on my way home from work when the Police should be out and ready, they were all bunched up in a spot ready to catch a Motorist doing 31mph (you cant really speed at work because theres too many bumps). It was unbelieveable!

    That and things like how the government is bleeding us dry with Petrol tax, it costs me over 200month to get to work alone, ill be best off unemployed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1796.

    1795. marie Read again.

    "(a) Killing members of the group;
    (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
    (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
    (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
    (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

  • rate this

    Comment number 1795.

    1775 I've read it and it still means murder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1794.

    One component of many: The state, albeit with good intent over the years, removed authority from parents and indeed schools to manage "more difficult" young people. One example of this is the age of adulthood reduced from 21 to 18 years. I personally had huge difficulties in controlling my daughter of 18 years in 1997, who threw the "state" at me when I tried to impose responsible family values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1793.

    Austerity measures, funding cuts and enomomic downturns are impacting everybody in the country. Instead of facing the harsh times with dignity and unity, all we see are blame games and scandals on the news. Media and the press should stop justifying crimial behaviours by pointing fingers elsewhere. Think about what makes people different from animals and what is fit for a civil society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1792.

    The rioters involved in Manchester, Liverpool and other cities were overwhelmingly white. The pictures I have seen in the newspapers and on the news are predominately white. You could equally argue this is about how people are brought up; never being taught right from wrong, to consider other people or to respect those in authority. They did it because they believed they could get away with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1791.

    A succession of Right Wing Govts here have found it fashionable to restrict Welfare and bash the Poorest. Sooner or later the Poorest were bound to blow up, and now they have.
    We need an enlightened and Compassionate Society where Basic Subsistence is paid to those who need it as a Human Right. No more Call Centres barring access to Welfare or harassment of the Poor and Vulnerable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1790.

    This article is as pompus as can be.
    People EVERYWHERE are rioting who may or may not have access to freaking TV's. There is an unballance in society and those that make up 99% OF society are waking up to it.. bout time.
    careful though people. charged IF--->

    •Could break the law or condone or encourage unlawful activity. This includes breach of copyright, defamation and contempt of court.


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