Riot Reflections 1: Why Wales escaped

John Osmond examines some underlying reasons why last week’s contagion of violence was stopped at the Welsh border

For the more thoughtful of commentators last week’s riots have provoked a questioning about what it means to be English. Where does England go from here? was the strap line above a piece by Henry Porter in Sunday’s Observer. Remarking that the riots had delivered as great a shock to England as the home-grown suicide bombers did in 2005, he added:

“Actually, last week may even be more shocking because we have no-one else to blame – no foreign extremist ideology to hand, no external threat of any kind. This was ours to own – a materialist, ugly, violent Olympiad of lawlessness, mortifyingly laid bare for the world to see …. This was us at our very worse, and it is significant that while the riots spread to cathedral cities and market towns, they did not cross England’s borders to Wales and Scotland, a fact that will certainly encourage a sense of differentiation in both countries.”

It’s worth probing some of the differences that may explain why the contagion has not spread across the border. In the first place Wales is altogether on a different scale to England. It is not just a question of population size – Wales’ three million compared with a little over 51 million for England – but the urban experience as well. Cardiff, Wales’ capital and largest city has a population short of 350,000, and is more comparable with say Nottingham (301,000) or Derby (340,000), than Bristol (441,00) or Liverpool (450,000).

Big may not be so beautiful after all

Tomorrow Rhys David suggests there are lessons for Cardiff’s development to be learned from the English riots

Although most Welsh people now live in an urban milieu, the background culture of Welsh society is more rural and close-knit village-style communities than the cityscapes that characterise the bulk of the English experience. We have far smaller immigrant communities as well and those that are here tend to be more deep-rooted.

As significantly, the wealth and income gap between the least and most well off is much smaller in Wales than most of England, and certainly that found in London and the South East. To see why this contrast is important look no further than The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, a book first published by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in 2009. It explores the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It claims, too, that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical and mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, teenage pregnancies, child well-being, and significantly for the argument being pursued here – violence – outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Related to this background economic reality is what I would argue is the dominant ideological outlook that characterises Welsh politics and to a great extent shared across the parties – even these days some in the Welsh Conservatives – and that is social democracy. Ironically, perhaps, the best survey of this approach to politics was published posthumously by the English historian Tony Judt in his Ill fares the land (2010). As he put it:

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.”

This could have been uttered by any one of the MPs speaking in the House of Commons last week, from David Cameron to Ed Miliband. Judt argues that Social Democrats share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance, but in public policy believe in the virtue of collective action for the collective good:

“Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.”

As I say, in the Welsh political context this passes for mainstream thinking. Can the same be said for the English? It does not seem so. Thatcherism, followed by the years of Tony Blair extolled different virtues, of competition and individual opportunity and took its eye off the importance of the public realm. As Tony Judt concluded in a notable essay in the New York Review of Books:

“All around us, even in a recession, we see a level of individual wealth unequaled since the early years of the twentieth century. Conspicuous consumption of redundant consumer goods—houses, jewelry, cars, clothing, tech toys—has greatly expanded over the past generation. In the US, the UK, and a handful of other countries, financial transactions have largely displaced the production of goods or services as the source of private fortunes, distorting the value we place upon different kinds of economic activity. The wealthy, like the poor, have always been with us. But relative to everyone else, they are today wealthier and more conspicuous than at any time in living memory. Private privilege is easy to understand and describe. It is rather harder to convey the depths of public squalor into which we have fallen.”

All of this applies much more to England and the English south-east than it does to Wales. So, too, did the immediate reaction of most voices coming out of England, which emphasised vengeance rather than comprehension. Here, in contrast we struck a consensual note typified by the view of the Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan, who  spoke of pockets of deprivation in the cities, affected by the rioting, leaving people with nothing to lose. As he put it:

“I don’t want to condone those who have destroyed property and who’ve killed people. On the other hand, I think we have to ask deeper questions: What causes young people, and really young people, to behave in such a desperate way? To behave in a way that they think is acceptable? There are pockets of our cities that are totally deprived, that are poor, that they’ve got nothing to lose. I think, therefore, we have got to look at that deeper question about what causes people to feel so desperate that they can go out and they don’t care about the consequences. And we have to ask what sort of moral example are they being set by those in authority or positions of power? Headline after headline over the past few years has revealed a society made ‘sick’ by greed and selfishness from the top down. We’ve got bankers who’ve been helping themselves to excessively large and unjustified bonuses and MPs exploiting the expenses system. We have also seen senior police officers resigning in the wake of newspaper phone-hacking scandals. So any plan to tackle the ‘moral collapse’ is likely to fall on deaf ears without a clean sweep of the boardrooms as well as the streets.”

John Osmond is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs

33 thoughts on “Riot Reflections 1: Why Wales escaped

  1. There were also no outbreaks of flash mob crime in Newcastle, Plymouth, Portsmouth and numerous other parts of England. How do you explain that John? I suppose the residents of these areas are all descended from Welsh people who left Wales in the 1930s and took with them that unique attitude to life which sets Wales apart from the rest of the world. The causes of the criminal activity which took place in certain parts of a small number of UK cities last week are a bit more complex than you seem to believe. As for ‘vengeance’ being a specific trait of people who just happen to live in England I would respectfully suggest that you should start to get out a bit more.

  2. Without doubt it is vitally important we learn as much as we can about the riots in England so that we may avoid these catastrophic events here in Wales. There is no doubt there are substantial differences between Wales and England as you highlighted. I would also suggest that even with its limited powers our Senedd has lessened the impact of more neo-liberal policies coming from Westminster which have exacerbated the inequalities in British society. Sadly it appears that the powers that be are more interested in telling the English public what it wants to hear rather than telling it what it needs to hear.

    By merely knee jerking its way to popularity the British government will fail to take advantage of an opportunity to change British society for the better. If only the people in power would read and take note of the excellent points raised by works like “The Spirit level” we might change things for the better. As it is, my only hope lies with far more power, starting with Justice and Policing powers, be transferred to the Senedd so that we can craft policies specific and relevant to Wales.

  3. This article may come back to haunt the writer. The UK is not out of the woods yet and there is every possibility of Wales being included next time.

    The social, political, economic and cultural causes of these riots were different on each night and differed from borough to borough and city to city. The riots in Tottenham were different to the riots in Enfield, the petrol bombing of a police station in Nottingham was different to the looting in Gloucester.

    Wales is not that different from the rest of the UK. We have a propensity for football linked hooliganism and the EDL have marched and provoked in Cardiff. Blaenau Gwent has some of the worst social deprivation in the UK. We have a political disconnect where the political class feel that the 35% turn out for the recent referendum produces the legitimacy for constitutional change. We have a lack of interest in our community exemplified by the readership of our only ‘national’ newspaper reaching 30 000. In our education system exclusions for violence against teachers rose by 50% last year. Our politicians in the Bay have assaulted ambulance staff, visited prostitutes, claimed ipods, flat screen TVs, curtains and trouser presses as expenses. Politicians had mortgages paid on their second homes in Cardiff when they lived in Cwmbran and the Vale of Glamorgan.

    We have an accumulation of serious problems in Wales and we are set for a period of great economic hardship as the Conservative Lib Dem cuts start to bite. We should not be complacent in thinking we are somehow immune to social unrest.

  4. Sadly Billy Pilgrim, Wales doesn’t have immunity: but maybe it has its own opportunities. Its political trajectory (some would argue it that it was going backwards) has undoubtedly ‘protected’ the country from some of the worst excesses of Thatcherite dogma and Blairite stupidity. We may have paid another price – slow economic development for example – but that may turn out to have been an oddly disguised advantage.
    What is clear now is that we need visionary, resourceful, innovative, charismatic politicians with the intellectual and moral clout to argue for building a more equal, fairer, sustainable society and use our advantage of self-management (if not independence) to do it.
    I can hear the howls already. But we can hope, can’t we?

  5. Here in Wales, we are not above anyone else. We have our fair share of people and personas who would quite happily go and loot what they can. We are a smaller place and less built up with our cities, Cardiff, Newport, Swansea… much easier for the police to keep people in order do you not think? I feel that if young people feel they can, they will… and in the case of these recent riots – they sure did.

    Modern day Wales has notably less high streets lined with shops, especially at the high end. We have shopping centres which are fully loaded with cctv and security staff where many of the high end stores are. The shops that tend to line the streets here are things like Superdrug, Boots, smaller Supermarket stores and then masses of eateries, take outs etc… with much less of an incentive to loot. I have noted that these things were looted recently, but this took place once the ball had started rolling in much larger stores where goods of material worth had already been gained.

    I would say this problem is more down to the different designs of our cities, and also size.

  6. I agree with Billy Pilgrim here. I am from Germany and what I have experienced in some Welsh places is unbelievable. Such poverty, such decay – in buildings and morals. No manners, no behaviour: not only in young people but especially those people in higher positions, managers, politicians, the clergy.

    Peter D. Cox has a good point, too, in saying there are good chances here in Wales. I agree with that also. There are good schools, the class system to me as an observer seems a little less dominant than in England. I like the Welsh towns with their independent shops. In Aberystwyth you still get this to an extent, Miss Wales – even though you have a great point – or in Aberdyfi and Aberaeron I do not see typical high street shops.

    Germany is bigger than England but I have not seen such riots. That is for the argument of size in the article above.

    Why Wales escaped? Not sure. It just happened somewhere else but could happen here any time, too.

  7. While some of the arguments in this article seem flawed on thorough investigation, I do think it is vital to have this debate now in Wales. Friends of mine who work with young people in areas of London that experienced rioting have said that they saw this coming, and I think the key lesson is to try and understand young people in a more holistic and positivist sense, rather than in relation to social problems.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the political culture of Wales leans toward social democracy, but in an era in which the expansion of consumerism and financial services is seen as essential for economic development (Cardiff may be one of the UK’s prime examples of this) such a culture, with the bonds it engenders and the sense of drive and optimism that it encourages, can so easily fade into a vague collective memory. Shopping centres and renewal projects centered around urban ‘hubs’ offer jobs, while village and town economies can less and less support the aspirations, or needs, of young people. We can be proud of our heritage, but we would do better to transmigrate it’s values into a new world than to try and re-live it.

    I’m sure that many English policy makers would be humble enough to approach Wales for answers, but I’m equally sure that we don’t have them! Even in writing this comment I feel further and further adrift, trying to pin down the essence of a set of circumstances that may be 20, 30, 60 or more years in the making. As much as evictions and tough sentencing will fail to stop incidences of this kind, communal schadenfraude won’t offer any answers. That said, it would feel good to have a communal feeling of any kind right now.

  8. Small is still beautiful then. It certainly is. But as far as Wales is concerned it is only a matter of time. Our immunity from civil unrest won’t last. There was an attempt to riot in Cardiff, don’t forget. JD Sports in the ASDA-Ikea mall complex to the west of the Bay (and actually much more part of Grangetown than Butetown) had its windows kicked in but police action was swift and the offenders were arrested. No riot ensued. But that wasn’t for want of trying.

    In Cardiff, unlike many of the other riot-filled urban centres, working-class districts do not much lap into our shop-filled heart. It’s a distance to walk from James Street to Queen Street and even further from Ferry Road to St David’s Two. Are the boys going to slug it all the way up there in their hoodies for a laugh? No. It’s just too far. And, as someone else here has pointed out, in Wales we haven’t quite got the same population densities. The idea that the Welsh characteristic of support for the underdog might have been a factor in the calming down of the fermenting brethren has a lot of appeal as does the idea that Wales, unlike England, is a land filled with opportunity for the downtrodden. In my experience absolutely true. But I don’t actually buy any of this. I think we got off simply because critical mass on the part of those with a propensity to riot was not attained. Not this time anyway.

  9. Understanding why Wales wasn’t affected by the riots requires us to understand why (certain parts of) England were. And I’m not sure that there’s a consensus on that yet: given the profile of the rioters, neither race nor poverty nor gang violence has yet been convincingly implicated. As for inequality, well that’s certainly true of London, but there surely aren’t much greater extremes of wealth in Nottingham or Gloucester compared to Cardiff. Besides, I don’t think that the ‘Spirit Level’ analysis can be accepted uncritically, the book was the subject of a great deal of criticism and debate.

  10. Wales is not England. We do not have big faceless cities. The pro-active local community police and PCSO and local youth workers in Cardiff headed off most of the likely rioters and thieves before they started. Community policing has been a success across Wales. The UK government’s attempts to slash police numbers will destroy community policing. It is a foolish and short sighted policy. Community police officers know the idiots and crooks on their patch and can stop them just by showing up and talking to them. Far better than rubber bullets and water canon as advocated by Dave Plank and the absurd Clegg. The best comment I’ve seen on any blog was “Devolve Policing and Justice”.

  11. Some of these comments seem to confirm that the Anglo-British have such a fixation with England when dealing with our issues. They seem utterly perplexed that the recent riots did not happen in Scotland or the north of Ireland either. Noticeable is their somewhat pathetic elision that ‘England = UK’. Like Welsh is a UK language, eh? As if water cannons in Ulster are not in the UK. As if a Team GB (sic) actually represents the UK (GB is an island; UK is a state). As though Scottish oil belongs to the UK (OK, they got that one right).

    I honestly get the clear impression that they’re disappointed with the lack of rioting across the Celtic countries. It spoils their pan-UK mantra.

    If, as is being said, one of the reasons for these English riots is to do with identity and alienation, the fact that so many of us – like the Scots and Irish – now identify with our own nations (and that’s an inclusive concept) rather than being British, is at least a plausible reason for no riots here. So the more un-British people here become, the better for all round.

  12. I honestly didn’t realise what a “wonderful” place that Wales was, and how even more “wonderful” the Welsh people are who live in this piece of land that is kept going by subsidies from London and the south east of England. Whilst not having many super-rich the gaps in wealth between the Welsh “underclass” and the well off, particularly those working for BBC Wales/S4C and other people well into public life (like the Councillor picking up nearly £100,000 a year in expenses) are huge. However the problems found here are not because of such mass immigration, particularly from third world, as is found in London and other major cities. Perhaps it’s because they don’t find the Welsh particularly welcoming – tight knit communities that don’t like ordinary English people let alone people from Somalia who would like houses at rent of £8000 per month, paid for by tax payers. Having travelled through Tottenham/Dalston etc it looks and feels like the third world, with its attached poverty and criminality. The whole black culture of the disaffected youth, with black on black knife crime/murders is an indication of the underlying deep seated problems and taken together with softly softly policing was bound to lead to major problems, particularly after any police action against “gangsters”. The amazing thing about the economy of London is that all the services seem to be provided at lower level by disproportionate numbers of people from the third world whilst in Hackney unemployment is a major problem. When you look at previous mass immigration such as Jewish people over the ages they took any work available, even when below their education/experiences but worked hard and made their way in the world. What we have created is a “nightmare” in our inner cities (mainly London), of mass immigration of a feckless and unemployable “underclass” who turn to criminality and the rest is obvious. As we are such a wonderful people we should get the Archbishop of Wales to invite them here and our good will and generosity will enhance their life chances no end.

  13. I too would urge caution – there may be something here, but at the moment, it would be best to wait for the literal and metaphorical smoke to clear. You could for example make a distinctly wobbly generalisation such as that Wales and (southern) Scotland being ‘Celtic’ revere Roman order while England being ‘Saxon’ or ‘Viking’ prefers looting and pillage. That sounds silly straight away, but it does show how it is still too early to make such sweeping observations.

  14. “There were also no outbreaks of flash mob crime in Newcastle, Plymouth, Portsmouth and numerous other parts of England. How do you explain that John?”

    Perhaps because these cities are ports? Britain’s maritime cities have a long history of multiculturism, immigrant populations tend to be well established/integrated and these cities have found it easier to reinvent themselves following the massive changes of the last 30 years. The post-industrial cities of the Midlands are densely populated, have a poorer urban environment, a more transient immigrant population and a more conservative-minded settled population which was reliant on manufacturing rather than mining/shipping etc.

  15. Fascinating. I felt the problem was having all that useless junk in the shops in the first place.
    I can understand looting, everyone going in as a gang and getting the things they always wanted.
    It has to be punished and stopped, but it isn’t morally outrageous. The morality of such behaviour is no worse than some rush and grab jumble sales and shop sales.

    More to the point is the interesting timing, with collapse above in shares and below in social order. A big fuss over the first tremors, wait for the earthquake!
    Size is very relevant. A small enough area can be self-reliant at a pinch and socially united especially in a crisis, and thereby immune to financial avalanche, credit drought, banks defaulting – problems which are more seriously terrifying those in a position to see what is happening than riots.

    Wales has the opportunities, mentioned already, to do things differently: to keep the old fashioned values of community and the new ones of living sustainably. The only values in town.

  16. Quite right. Social injustice and vicious populism are English diseases.

  17. “What causes young people, and really young people, to behave in such a desperate way? To behave in a way that they think is acceptable?”

    They behaved that way because they expected to get away with it, as they usually do. Shop lifting and fare dodging is nothing out of the ordinary for them. As one girl said to camera “We can do what we like. You can’t stop us.”

  18. This is extremely accurate and to the point, isn’t it? Could one of the problems simply be the size of our cities, and the resulting loss of neighborhood?

  19. So what this piece is saying is what? England has more immigrants? England has more inequality? England has a culture of individualism?

    Of these I would say when inequality is the product of arbitary and protectionist people, who care little for the rest and think of them as an ‘other’.
    When immigration is used for ideological and anglophobic reasons. When individualism is undermined by lack of clarity on rights and the law. Then whats the surprise in the riots?
    The surprise if anything is the lack of riots, and the timidity of them.

    “vengeance rather than comprehension”, well when you attack comprehendable laws and undermine rights, when the law is beyond you ken or means, what’s left is vengeance, or to give it a very old English quote, “always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning”.

    What’s missing of course is that England has little or no recognition from the UK state, no ‘national’ representative body fighting its cause and is the object of dispute, denial, and demonisation. Not just by the other ‘nations’ of the UK, but by the UK elite and their media outlets. It’s also suffered a great deal of unrooting of people and even seen the lauding of rootlessness or roots to some ‘far away place’ which is both romanticised and then countered by the idea “we don’t do things that way here”.

  20. Zen9,
    “Not just by the other ‘nations’ of the UK, but by the UK elite and their media outlets”

    I think you’ve got the second part of this bang on and the first part wrong: ‘peripheral’ nationalisms have been pressing for a discrete England for decades.

    “When immigration is used for ideological and anglophobic reasons”

    Well, of course as you sort of say in the last paragraph, British policy is innately Anglophobic (as well as innately ideological, in the strict sense). Immigration and anti-immigration have both been used to make the sneaky and illogical suggestion that England remains somehow tied to state policy (in my opinion, as a counter-weight to the realisation that devolution was never in fact a manageable process).

    Yes: more proactive representation, more stake in the polity.

  21. “…the wealth and income gap between the least and most well off is much smaller in Wales than most of England”

    An interesting way of saying Wales is poorer than England, really.

  22. Michael Gardiner,
    Well thats not the impression I gain, though to be fair there are those among the other nations of the UK that do approach the whole matter of England in a grown up and responsible way. But there are clearly a lot of expressions from a large number that veer between demonisation to denigration and outright dispute that England even exists.

    Yes England has been tied to state policy, if anything the problem there is how the ‘UK’ has veered this away from what the English want.

  23. Nonsense. There is no good evidence that less equal societies are more violent, or less healthy and happy, or even less popular, especially when the measures necessary to achieve greater equality are taken into account, and their effects on the economy. There is evidence that bigger cities are more violent, a more than sufficient explanation for the difference between Wales and England.

  24. William MacDougall,
    Sorry, but you are talking crap. The evidence is clear cut (and I remember participating in the early research in 1990) that as a society becomes more unequal it becomes more violent and vice versa. The situation across countries at a point in time is complicated by other factors: nevertheless, there is a general pattern that inequality leads to underclasses and violent and illegal economic activities. Brazil is a good example, but we can also look to the USA for how not to run cities; I doubt that the size is the crucial factor. Certainly, I know of no research to back that claim.

  25. Martin Baldwin-Edwards,
    I am aware of such research, but I think it is far from conclusive, and as I said there is a far simpler explanation for the greater quiet in Wales: that there aren’t any significant sized cities there…

  26. Yes, let’s establish equality. Let Welsh (and Scottish) residents pay as much as the English for university fees, prescriptions, per capita social care et cetera. Instead,in this dis-United Kingdom, the English taxpayers subsidise those north and west of the English border. This tidy little racket is another instance of ‘unequal distribution of wealth.’

  27. Gloucester is an island of relative poverty in an otherwise wealthy area. It’s nothing like its middle-class neighbour, Cheltenham. Gloucester reminds me of Newport without the charm.

  28. The riots are very interesting. Apart from the manifest issues that have been thrown to the surface by them, one fact has not been sufficiently underlined: they were London based. They started in a particular part of London and they spread with amazing speed to many other parts of London (but again significantly not all parts). Coupled with this is the fact that they were extremely televisual – buildings set on fire, shops being looted, groups of teenagers seen breaking windows and entering stores, police beeing assaulted. This made for extremely exciting television. It was like watching a gangster movie; in fact was even better than fiction since, in the aftermath of the riots, the media was able to capture on camera the faces of true heroes and heroines as well as those of some exceptionally nasty individuals. It is true that similar commotions took place in Manchester and Birmingham. But the fact that they took place in London on such a scale and in such dramatic and violent circumstances was the reason why the riots were deemed to be so important. After all they broke out on the very doorsteps (literally) of the dominant political and cultural class of this country.

    I wonder what the response would have been had they, for example, taken place in Cardiff or Swansea? No doubt they would have made the front line “national” news but one doubts whether they would have produced the same level of response. I don’t think that David Cameron would have rushed back from his holiday in Tuscany to make a make a portentous declaration had they been confined to our cities, or even to Manchester or Birmingham.
    Another point that can be made in response to your rather smug explanation of why the riots did not take place in Wales. Wales is not immune to communal violence. Quite the contrary. The history of modern Wales is replete with collective protests, often of a violent kind. Exactly a hundred years this summer, for example, in the searing heat of 1911 large scale riots and looting took place in Llanelli, when, over a three day period, two people were killed. Concurrent with these troubles, at the other end of the South Wales coalfield, in Tredegar, Bargoed, Ebbw Vale, and other north Monmouthshire towns, gangs of youths (apparently singing Welsh hymns) broke into Jewish owned shops and forced their owners to flee for their lives. The authorities panicked and were induced to call on the aid of the armed forces to help the police in quelling the rioters. Once the rioting died down, it was quietly forgotten, even in Wales itself. The myth of a respectable, peace-loving chapel bound country – “gwlad y menyg gwynion” – put paid to such ugly happenings. Your piece contains strong echoes of this powerful and long-established myth.

  29. The social, political, economic and cultural causes of these riots were different on each night and differed from place to place and city to city. The riots in Tottenham were different to the riots in Enfield, the petrol bombing of a police station in Nottingham was different to the looting in Gloucester.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy