From the Magazine: London’s Long Burn

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A hooded youth walks past a burning vehicle in Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

The youth riots and disturbances in the U.K. may have calmed, but important questions still smolder in the wreckage left behind. Britain’s leaders pin the violence and looting on “sheer criminality”; the word “feral” was conspicuous in some coverage of the disturbances. But criminal opportunism is not a sufficient explanation. TIME and Global Spin’s Catherine Mayer wrote in 2008 cover story of the deep unhappiness and criminality plaguing a stratum of Britain’s youth. In this week’s issue of the magazine, Nathan Thornburgh explores what catalyzed the astonishing violence. An excerpt after the jump.

The looting was not, as some observers too swiftly concluded, a race riot. Yes, Duggan was black, and there are strong correlations between race and class in Britain. But some of the worst violence happened in majority-white neighborhoods like Croydon. “This is much broader than race,” says Caryl Phillips, a British writer with Afro-Caribbean roots. “This is about a whole group–black, white and brown–who live just outside the law.”

Recent years have done little to bring that group into the fold. The unemployment rate for people ages 16 to 24 rose from 14% to 20% over the past three years alone; that’s as bad as it has been in two decades and is comparable to joblessness in Arab nations that witnessed youth-led revolutions this year. And yet when the Cameron government looked to slash the budget in a down economy, the ax seemed to fall disproportionately on the very people who were hurting the most. The London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey (which includes Tottenham, where the riots started) were already classified as being among the worst “employment black spots” in London, with 25 applicants for every job, when they were scheduled for reductions of more than 10% in government spending, deeper cuts than in almost all other boroughs.

The few looters who stopped long enough to express a political opinion to journalists blamed Cameron for the conditions that led to the violence. That’s a little facile: the Prime Minister has been in office just over a year, and his austerity cuts haven’t yet been fully carried out. Besides, Britain’s poorest did no better during boom times under Tony Blair and the Labour Party. But some of the disaffection with Cameron and his government has more to do with who they are than with what they’ve done. The Prime Minister was educated at Eton and Oxford, his deputy Nick Clegg at Westminster and Cambridge. The Cabinet represents the very oldest notions of a British elite, at a time when the U.K. is more diverse than ever and more in debt than it’s been in years. “I would define [the riots], in simplistic terms, as class warfare,” says Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at the University of Liverpool. “It’s class war on the streets of Britain.”

Read the full article here.