To Hell in a Looted Shopping Trolley
It’s the Glorious Twelfth, when by tradition tweeded patricians, with beaters and ghillies in tow, pitch up on Scottish moors to kill gamefowl for fun. These days it sets back a party of eight about £50,000 a day to hang around on sodden heather waiting for ptarmigan and grouse to startle from their coverts. So the beads are drawn nowadays not by plus-foured opisthognaths but by short-sellers from Manila or Mile End out for kicks that boast a cachet lacking from paintball.
Like the shooting season, the public riot is a child of summer, a free-access Glastonbury without the portaloos.
Scotland’s failure to emulate the disorder in London, Birmingham and Manchester prompted a good deal of gloating in the local papers. Aberdeen’s Press and Journal gleefully reported plans to draft in Scots plods to bolster the thin blue line south of the border, and David Cameron’s new anti-gang measures that will draw on Strathclyde police’s – admittedly ample – experience. Scotland didn’t fail to riot because the preconditions for it don’t exist in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Dundee. The weather here this week has been typical of the Scottish summer. No one feels like rioting when it’s pissing down with rain.
Lewis Namier famously described 18th-century British politics as ‘aristocracy tempered by rioting’. In fact riots often combine the form of radical protest with reactionary content. The Gordon Riots that erupted in the early summer of 1780 after the partial repeal of the 1698 Popery Act led to an orgy of looting not of moveable property, but of gin (though that isn’t where the name comes from). The riots drew on long-simmering resentment against excise duties on liquor. Horace Walpole remarked that more people had been killed by drink than by musket-ball, as the mob rifled gin-palaces for free booze; at one point a fire in the Fleet was unwittingly fuelled when it was doused with gin instead of water. One of the rioters’ targets was the old Clink prison. That was part of the medieval ‘manor’ or liberty of Southwark, an area so free of city jurisdiction that the bishop, whose manor it was, used it to run bear-baiting shows and a brothel.
As well established as the riot tradition is reactive alarmism that the country is going to hell in a looted shopping trolley. Namier’s bon mot could be rewritten for our times as ‘plutocracy tempered by riot’. Consumerism holds up varnished designer tat as the sine qua non of civic respect. Its supporting ideology holds that monetary access to consumer goods flows from desert, the sort of thing stockpiled by politicians’ beloved ‘hard-working people and their families’. But everyone – not least Keele University cleaning staff, employed for over thirty years, who get up before six every morning to earn the minimum wage – knows that that is all balls. Acquisitiveness and arson are, as far as this goes, two sides of the same coin. Consumerism may be a mug’s game; but acting as though it efficiently metes out rewards according to desert is a mug’s game run by the mugs. Small wonder when the lid is taken off that those who know the system is a put-up job fill their boots.
As with the Gordon Riots, religious bigotry lay behind the Sacheverell Riots of 1710, when Dissenters and Whigs were the main target. In 1714, once the Whigs were back in power, they hurried through the Riot Act, only repealed in 1973, ‘for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies’. The so-called ‘Black Act’ that followed a few years later was an addendum to the Riot Act. Its capital clauses, ostensibly aimed at the ‘Waltham Blacks’ – poachers operating with blacked faces, the hoodies of the day – aimed to privatise wild animals as ‘game’, and hence off-limits to plebeians; defenders of the landed interest whacked the low-born rustlers who, it was alleged, disguised themselves by failing to wear powdered wigs. Their shades stalk today with the bond-traders on Rannoch Moor.