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March 28, 2011 / Leo Hollis

After the Riot: a historian’s view

Sunday morning was one of those gorgeous spring days you can only find in London. It seemed as if the city was stretching out the chills of winter and coming back to life. Regents Park filled up early with people spread out on rugs, while joggers in the latest skin-tight micro-fibres worked off the sins of the past season. There were tourists on Piccadilly, posing for photos in front of the Eros statue; while other more unusual snappers were pointing their camera at the Ritz Hotel, as well as the less eye-catching Santander Bank close to the Royal Academy.

These were unlikely subject for ‘catching the moment’, unless one was searching through the viewfinder for evidence of last night’s riot. What was left was less than a far distant memory of the images captured by news cameras and now uploaded by the dozen on youtube and other sharing websites. Even before the industrial cleaners had power-hosed the pavement and glaziers replaced the cracked windows, London seemed to have shrugged its shoulders and almost forgotten events.

The city, of course, is used to riots and protests and London has long been a forum for raised voices and the angry crowd. In 1450 Jack Cade lead a popular rebellion from Kent into the heart of the city, hoping to present their grievances to the king, Henry IV. The city was called the ‘nursery of all the troubles’ in the lead-up to the Civil Wars of the 1640s. It was after this period that London also become home of the mob, the mobile vulgaris, the anonymous rabble that was often manipulated into action by unscrupulous
politicians and firebrand preachers from the 1680s onwards.

While the TUC march itself that ended at Hyde Park was clearly the descendant of the long tradition in political protests and the legitimate expression of grievances, the chaos that spilled across Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square has completely different forebears.

The violence that was was caught on a thousand cameras is not necessarily a sign of illegitimacy in itself. There have been many righteous causes that have been challenged by police charges and batons, and Trafalgar Square is often the location for such batterings. On November 13, 1887, 2000 policemen and 400 troops laid into protestors on what would later be called Bloody Sunday. This was repeated in March 1990 with the Poll Tax riot, that forced a rare climb down from Margaret Thatcher.

Nor can it be said that the destruction of private property is necessarily a sign of an unjust cause. In 1832, the crowd gathered outside Apsley House, the home of the prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, and systematically shattered every window with a barrage of stone in protest at the Iron Duke’s refusal to pass the Reform Act that extended the franchise.

However, the violence this weekend looked less than a political outpouring and more like a dandy rumpus at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, that was often the location for riots amongst the young fiesty (and male) audience that kicked off on any pretext. In 1737, the seats were ripped out when the tradition of allowing footmen into the Gods for free was temporarily curtailed.

While the majority of marchers ended up in Hyde Park, the place identified by Karl Marx as the location where the English revolution would most likely kick off, the angry mob were elsewhere. Trafalgar Square has long been considered the front room of the nation and a place for both celebrations and protests; Oxford Street and Piccadilly, on the other hand, are unexpected sites and hint at the thoroughly modern identity of the riots as a new breed of consumer protests. Apart from the banks and the Ritz, a shout-in was staged at Fortnum and Masons, the window of Iran Airways was stoved in, there was the wrong kind of rush staged in front of Top Shop (owned by Sir Philip Green, adviser to the Coalition as well as a tax dodging Monaco resident), as well as Boots the Chemist, which is registered in Switzerland to avoid our high corporate tax rates.

Yet all this says something very interesting about cities themselves. It is plainly absurd to make comparisons between Tahrir Square in Cairo, or Pearl Square in Bahrain with what happened here on Saturday night, except to say that cities are powerful amplifiers of group behaviour. While there has been much written about the impact (or not) of social media and the web upon the political events in North Africa, few have made the more obvious, and unequivocal, statement that the uprisings have been urban and have been won on the streets.

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