OUR great city works well because we Londoners muddle through together without too much friction. “Live and let live”’ has a claim to be the defining London motto.
But there have been times where that harmony has shattered. I remember the shock of Tottenham and Croydon burning in August 2011 and of shops being boarded up all over London in 1981 as Brixton erupted. At those times London suddenly felt vulnerable, and society fractured.
Many of the causes of similar civil unrest are developing again. The right actions now can reduce the chance of reaching boiling point in London.
Academics agree that the most common causes of civil unrest are economic hardship (especially rises in food and fuel prices) plus a sense of social or political injustice.
Economic hardship is with us and getting worse. Food inflation has been at 9.8 per cent in recent months, energy prices have risen and have been predicted by consultancy Cornwall Insight to hit £4,266 a year by January 2023, a rise of 230 per cent.
There is a growing sense of social injustice driven by an inactive government too distracted by a leadership campaign to focus on alleviating hardship coupled with a growing gap between rich and poor. The Centre for Economics and Business Research reported this week that the “highest earners now enjoy annual pay growth of 10 per cent, while lowest earners see just a 1 per cent rise”.
This is fuelling civil disobedience campaigns like the “Don’t Pay UK” group who are encouraging mass refusal to pay their energy bills. Inexorably, it seems, the conditions for civil unrest are emerging.
Mass violent protest would be a calamity for London and would compound existing issues. Economically, major unrest leads to a drop in GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.Specifically, large-scale unrest leads to a collapse of confidence and economic activity.
In the first month of the Gilets Jaunes “Yellow Vest” protests in Paris, French retailers reported they had lost a billion euros in sales and their tourist board reported plummeting hotel bookings. Portland, Oregon’s year of protests that started in 2020 scarred the city. Its reputation as a peaceful, quirky destination has not recovered.
Unrest would halt a return to the office and lead to an immediate reduction in non-essential shopping and it would undermine the tourism that London needs.
So, what can be done to help London avoid a similar fate?
Firstly, our government can reduce hardship and the sense of social injustice by urgent, targeted measures to the most deprived. This is the kind of action the head of the CBI has urged. Rishi Sunak has said that the mooted Truss tax cuts will give the rich a “big bung” but “leaving those who most need help out in the cold”. Many pensioners or those on Universal Credit would not see the benefit of tax cuts, and scrapping green levies would only take off around £150 off of bills reaching into the thousands of pounds.
Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation has proposed that action is needed for “direct help through the benefits system or directly through lower bills”.
Even with financial support, the risk of unrest and the associated damage to business and society remains high. So a regrettable, second measure must be to prepare the justice system for the potential for trouble. Are our police, who found the peaceful Extinction Rebellion and Sarah Everard protests so hard to manage, really ready for Londoners taking to the streets in mass protest?
And are our courts, where a ballot this month might result in more strike action in September, ready to execute the effective 24-hour criminal justice that was ordered by the Crown Prosecution Service – then led by a certain Keir Starmer – in 2011?
Perhaps, despite the hardship, we won’t see riots in London this year. We do still benefit from high employment and we are not yet at the predicted lowest point in the economic cycle. But it is vitally important to keep our capital harmonious and fully functioning. We deserve immediate policy and better planning to address this serious risk to all Londoners and London-based businesses. Or can we cross our fingers and rely on “live and let live” to avoid calamity?