The riots one year on: Are we worried about a repeat?

Writing in The Sun yesterday (and next to Leona Lewis – life goal #32 complete), I summarised some of the data from our project on the riots, with Mark Pickup and Eline de Rooij (Simon Fraser University), and with support from YouGov.

Over the past year, we have undertaken three surveys of the general public to gauge the impact of the riots on attitudes toward minority groups to see whether the riots have made people feel more threatened and, in turn, more prejudiced toward other groups. The results will be coming out soon, and presented at the meeting of the American Political Science Association in New Orleans, in September.

But given that it is the one year anniversary of the riots, we thought that the response to one question in particular would be of interest: whether people are worried about a possible repeat of the rioting.

The riots last year marked the most significant outbreak of rioting in the entire post-war era.

Across four hot summer days, rioting spread from its birthplace in Tottenham to cities across the country, including Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and Salford. In their aftermath, it was estimated that the riots resulted in around 2,000 arrests, policing costs in London alone that reached £74 million and a total cost to the British taxpayer of at least £100 million.

But to what extent is the nation worried about a repeat of these events?

At first glance, many of the wider conditions that surrounded the riots have remained, if not worsened: a global financial and more immediate Eurozone crisis; the onset of austerity measures and public service cuts; a lack of employment opportunities for young people (especially those from minority backgrounds); and stubbornly persistent inequality between those at the top of society, and those at the bottom.

It might be expected, then, that people may feel worried about a similar outbreak of rioting.

Working with YouGov, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of almost 1,000 citizens, to explore the extent to which the nation is worried about a possible repeat of the riots.

We asked them a question: ‘Thinking back to the riots of August 2011, how worried, if at all, are you that riots like that will happen again this year?’ The results are revealing, and perhaps not in the way that many might expect.

Overall, only 6% of those who were surveyed said they are ‘very worried’ about a repeat of the riots this year. This figure does increase to 32% when we include those who say they feel either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ worried about another outbreak of rioting, suggesting that one out of every three of us are worried about further riots this year.

However, while this number is significant, the overall picture is of a population that is generally not worried about a repeat of the riots: a clear majority of those who were surveyed -61%- were either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all worried’ about the riots happening again.

This raises the question of why, then, do we not appear that worried? There are three possible explanations: one legal, one political and one cultural. The first points to the high profile clampdown by the police and judges on those who were involved in the riots last year. This view suggests that our anxieties over the possibility of ‘copycat’ riots have been calmed by the swift response from police, and the often-hard sentencing of rioters.

A second and perhaps less convincing explanation is that our political leaders who –though initially criticised for their slow response- were quick to denounce the actions of rioters and launch detailed investigations into what caused the riots. David Cameron’s emphasis on ‘sick’ aspects of society, moral decline and the need for tough law-and-order measures would certainly have gone down well among the large numbers of citizens who traced the riots to criminality.

According to one survey that was undertaken immediately after the riots last year, for example, most  people identified the cause as being more to do with criminality than socio-economic factors like deprivation. When asked what were the main causes of the riots, the two most popular responses were ‘criminality’ and ‘gang culture’.

An alternative third perspective points to wider cultural and sporting events such as the Jubilee and Olympics as restoring national pride and encouraging citizens to feel as though they have more of a stake in society. The heavy focus on London during the Olympics, for example, is particularly significant. Of course, some might also argue that most people do not anticipate a further outbreak because rioting is such a rare event (although the prevalence of ‘copycat’ riots is important to note).

In reality, each of these explanations probably has something to say about why the nation does not appear to be overwhelmingly concerned about a repeat of the riots.

But while this may be true, our survey also uncovered some important variations. Older people are generally the most worried about a possible repeat of the riots, with 43% of those aged 60 and above saying they feel worried about this prospect, as compared to 26% of those aged between 18 and 24. Given that older people tend to be more conservative -and may feel as though they have more to lose than young people- this is hardly surprising.

But when we look at age and gender we see that one of the groups that are most worried about a return of the riots are hose who were most prominent during the events last year: young men aged between 18 and 24 years old. In fact, just over half of those who appeared in courtrooms immediately after the riots were aged 20 years or old, or under. While 50% of the young men in our survey said they are not worried about further riots, 37% of this group expressed concerns.

This might possibly suggest that these young men are less optimistic that the police and politicians have resolved the underlying tensions that led to the riots. By contrast, it is their slightly older peers –men aged 25 to 39 years old and who are more settled in society- who are the least worried about a repeat.

Lastly, in the aftermath of the riots many traced the cause to economic factors, such as deprivation and inequality between different groups in society, suggesting the riots were outlet of frustration among working-class citizens, the unemployed and those who depend on benefits.

 

With this in mind, our survey reveals a clear class divide in terms of people’s worries. It is these groups who are lower down the social and economic ladder –skilled, semi- and unskilled workers, and who depend on benefits- who are significantly more worried about another outbreak of riots than those who are in more secure professional and managerial jobs. Whereas 38% of the former say they are worried about a repeat, this figure drops to 28% among those in more affluent and secure occupations. However – and as above- a clear majority in both of these groups say they are not worried about the riots happening again.

Overall, then, the nation does not appear overly worried about a repeat of the riots this year, but this should not lead politicians and civil servants to be dismissive toward the root causes of events that dominated our television screens during four days last summer.

 

Matthew Goodwin (with co-authors Eline de Rooij and Mark Pickup).

 

 

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