As regular readers know I have done a lot of research into the Great Unrest of 1911: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2008/11/great-unrest-1910-11-part-1.html I have been in contact with people involved in commemorating this period of strikes and rioting, notably in Liverpool which experienced effectively a general strike. It is ironic that precisely 100 years on we are seeing much the same kind of riotous activity. As I have noted that, in contrast to the early 2000s when people on history discussion boards discussed any reference to the Great Unrest as a fantasy or a counter-factual, elements of it are even appearing in prime time television, such as reference to the shootings during a riot in Llanelli in 1911 on 'The One Show' on BBC1.
What then are the similarities and the differences between what we are seeing now and what was witnessed in 1911? The basis is very different. The unrest in 1910/11 had its roots in strikes by coal miners, railway workers and merchant sailors. In 2011 there are no such strikes going on. The coal industry has been all but destroyed in the UK and our coal, where needed still, is imported. A lot of freight that arrives in the UK is carried by foreign vessels, whereas in 1911, the UK was the dominant country for sea freight. The railways were as fragmented as they were in 1911 since the privatisation of the 1990s. However, at present railway workers seem not to have any reason to strike. Consequently, unlike in 1911, there is not an established pattern of unrest on which the riots can be based. A lot of this stems from the hammering of the trade unions during the 1980s under Thatcher and the loss of any collective identity among workers. Thatcher's greatest success in weakening the unions was not the legislation restricting their behaviour, much of which Labour tried to introduce in the past anyway, it was her success in getting us simply to think of 'me first'.
Another factor that is different to 1911 is the lack of radical rhetoric. In 1911 Labour MPs notably Keir Hardie went around not only supporting the riots as an expression of legitimate working class unrest which they generally were not, but publicly calling on soldiers to mutiny if their commanders ordered them to fire on rioting working class people. In contrast this time we have supposedly left-wing Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney one of the most deprived areas of London calling for a London-wide curfew, something that was not even imposed (outside Liverpool) even in 1911 and would appear as if we were under foreign occupation. No-one in the Labour Party will even try to squeeze out some reference to this unrest being a representation of the anger of the public over a mixture of issues, notably continued police mistreatment of ordinary people, especially from ethnic minorities and youth unemployment at a level higher even than the worst days of the 1980s. Without channelling there is a danger that the unrest will turn to racial violence as it did in South Wales in 1911 and could easily do in many parts of London. This may not be black/white violence but as happened in Cardiff a century ago, targeted at people seen as taking jobs, so aimed at Poles and other EU citizens who have settled in London and who we know the CBI favours as employees over UK young people. This seems to be an unforeseen danger that needs to be addressed now.
Another difference to 1911 is the fact that the weather is not as hot. The summer of 1911 was exceptionally hot and this always provides a context for rioting. However, neither is it raining heavily, so the weather may not provoke rioting but it is not discouraging it either at the moment.
Rioting in 1911 was generally carried out by people unconnected to the strikes going on at the time and it focused on much the same things as this time: attacking the police (especially those brought in from outside the area) and looting. Looting is especially popular at times of economic hardship and conspicuous consumption that we are experiencing at the moment. The largest similarity between 1911 and 2011 is the economic context. It is noted that in 1911 a lot of anger stemmed from the fact that real wages were falling but consumption by the wealthy especially of very visible luxuries was increasing. We are in a very similar position now. Real pay has been declining for forty years now and even those people in graduate professions cannot afford a fraction of what their parents in such jobs could have done.
Everyone is suffering from the inexorable rise in petrol costs, utility prices and housing both in terms of buying houses and, in particular, rent, which seems to have had a new burst of climb since the recession started. The disruption to household incomes by redundancy and unemployment further impinges on disposable income as well as income used to pay for the essentials. I have been unlucky, but my circumstances are probably not atypical, with over half my monthly income paying for somewhere to live, to light and heat it, to fuel my car and to eat. I do not go on holiday, my car is 15 years old, I do not eat in restaurants and do not go to the cinema. You can put up with a dull life and battling for every penny, but after a while it impacts on you. I am lucky, there are millions of people in the UK far worse off than me, but if I am disgruntled can imagine how many of them/you feel? Whilst most ordinary people struggle we still keep seeing the obscene salaries and consumption of the privileged. Bankers pay continues to be high and yet we are still suffering the consequences of their failed greedy gambles and will be for decades to come especially in terms of lost social care and local facilities such as libraries being closed down. As in 1911 the obvious greed of the wealthy is painful and pricks us, made easier by the constant flow of information to us through every medium available. Whilst the trains may be slower and less frequent than they were in 1911, information travels far faster these days to people in all walks of life and all ages.
There are a number of other similarities to 1911 not just the conspicuous consumption in a time of hardship. The drafting in of police to cities is just like in 1911. There are promised to be 16,000 police on the streets of London tonight; 10,000 of these brought from outside the capital; nine constabularies are sending officers to London. In some ways this is a reverse of 1911 when the Metropolitan Police provided officers to other parts of the country, but that was only because London remained quiet and the unrest was located in other cities. However, it seems likely that cities will draw on constabularies in neighbouring more rural counties. The UK has far fewer constabularies than in 1911, but we still have a very decentralised system. I wonder if cities in the North East will bid to buy in police from the Cleveland Constabulary given that their former Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable, arrested this week for corruption, seem happy to sell their officers to the highest bidder.
The call from the local authorities for troops to be on the streets of Croydon is just like the hysteria of 1911. Fortunately local magistrates are no longer in a position simply to summon a local unit as they were 100 years ago. Given how many people whine about Winston Churchill as Home Secretary centralising the despatch of troops in 1911 to tackle unrest, that is more the system we have now. The issue, ironically, is unlike in 1911, Britain is currently fighting in two wars. Whilst we no longer have imperial possessions to defend and the commitment in Ireland is far from what it was in 1911, the British Army would be pretty stretched if it was mobilised to police the streets. In 1911 the Territorial Army was not trusted to oppose rioters, but in 2011 given class fragmentation and the dependence the UK has on its part-time soldiers, they may, in fact be called up to combat unrest. However, I would imagine even now they would be sent to areas outside those in which they were recruited to avoid any questions about opening fire on family members for individual soldiers. Of course, these days the odd tank or armoured car can achieve what a squadron of hussars would have been needed to do in 1911, so they could be spread thinner. They are also no longer dependent on the railway system to reach the scenes of unrest. However, experiences with civil unrest in Northern Ireland in the 1970s show the hazards of such action.
I am more familiar with the King's Regulations of 1908 than I am with the current Queen's Regulations, and I would be interested to hear what the procedure is for the military called on to deal with unrest. I cannot believe it is to simply fire into the front row of rioters but with the power of modern rifles and sidearms, even firing over their heads would cause a hazard. Of course, the British police, since the 1980s have possessed anti-riot equipment pretty much undreamt of in 1911. There would be no need for police to fall back on furled raincoats, instead they have baton rounds, tear gas, shields of different types and in some locales, water cannon. Cameron ought to be alert to coming down too hard on the rioters if he wants to secure his political legacy. Misremembered accusations that Churchill had striking miners shot were to haunt him politically even forty years after the event.
Whilst it is clear that 2011 is not a re-run of 1911, there are similarities which furthermore makes me ask why no-one in power was ready for the unrest which broke out this month. As I have noted before, I believe that they probably did foresee and are happy for it to run its course. Cameron is clearly enjoying sounding off as the authoritarian leader in the media and no doubt taking steps to further reduce liberty in the UK. Perhaps, I am simply giving him credit for foresight that is undeserved and he is simply even more incompetent than I believed.