It’s a riot

Michael Ignatieff

  • ‘Civil Disturbances’ : Hansard, Vol. 8, Nos 143-144, 16 July 1981 – 17 July 1981
    HMSO, £80.00

The morning after Toxteth and Moss Side, the Daily Express front page asked its readers ‘HOW MUCH MORE MUST WE TAKE?’ This ‘we’ lends itself to easy caricature. It is ‘Outraged, Tunbridge Wells’ writ large, an army of indignant blue rinse. It is the passive ‘we’ of embattled parents, distributing blame to the ungrateful children with the aggrieved cry ‘What have we done to deserve this?’

In the wake of the riots, every newspaper seems to have its ‘we’. The Daily Mail’s poster, showing that chic woman of a certain age who is ‘Edinburgh every festival, United every season and the Daily Mail every day’, leaves no doubt whose indignant script its editor aspires to write. This chic woman is not so much spoken for as laid claim to, in the hope that real women will associate with the fantasy on offer on the hoardings. She stands for the ‘we’ whom the editor assumes will not guffaw when breakfasting over his 10 July headline, ‘EXTREMISTS’ MASTER PLAN FOR CHAOS’.

The Times leader of 10 July addresses an Englishman who it believes capable of occupying every discursive position at once:

Britain is a multi-racial society with a good deal of racial hatred, yet little is done to enable people to comprehend and combat the evil of racialism. It will not be resisted by preaching integration. That is a fallacy of the Sixties. It is unrealisable, it is questionable if it is desirable and it raises more fear and animosity than it dissipates with its overtones of inter-racial sex, marriage and a coffee-coloured Britain. Tolerance does not require that every Englishman should have a black man for his neighbour or that every Asian should forget his cultural identity. Instead we must acknowledge and understand the existence of social pluralism.

It is not surprising that the Times’s Englishman turns out not to include Asians or blacks. What is curious is the belief that it can be consistent to be against racism and against having black neighbours.

Even though most of the ‘We’s’ for whom the papers presume to speak turn out, on inspection, to be some fraction or other of the white ‘talking classes’, each ‘we’ is an imperialist, asserting its claim to be taken as the universal, the consensual ‘we’. Yet each ‘we’ can only be given an identity by specifying which groups it excludes, and which registers of fear, condescension and concern it employs when speaking of ‘them’. One ‘we’ can be identified by its use of the term ‘hooligan’, another by its penchant for the euphemism ‘New Commonwealth immigrant’. Discourse which employs code-words like these cannot be described as a collective attempt to see and understand, but rather as the rhetorical display of pre-given certainties. No wonder, then, that the discourse on riot has a ritualised familiarity to it.

The riots are the sort of social occasion which sets off intense competition among politicians and journalists to commandeer consensus. There are rewards for those who succeed in defining and then speaking for the largest ‘we’. At Westminster, a scattering of rhetorical gambits at the outset of the riots has been followed by convergence, as each side fights for the right to speak in the name of the narrow centre.

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