Boris Johnson says London riots “are not a simple issue.”

Hackney, 8 August 2011

Hackney on Monday 8 August. Photograph: Gemma Drake

Powered by article titled “Boris Johnson says London riots “are not a simple issue.”” was written by Dave Hill, for on Friday 12th August 2011 14.21 UTC

Given the fury directed this week at any politician daring to suggest that the riots, as well as being intolerable, will have had complex social roots that need to be addressed I was encouraged that Boris said the following to me this morning:

I do not think that this is a simple issue, and I do not think we can simply ascribe it to wanton criminality or simply ascribe it to “Tory cuts,” or whatever, you know.

He offered that thought during a visit to Stoke Newington fire station in Hackney to thank London Fire Brigade members for their efforts during the riots and disbelievingly note the imbecile urge that seized some people to throw missiles at them as they went about their work. He also took the opportunity to thank Transport for London and all those operating “non-emergency transport services,” notably buses, for keeping things moving on the roads, and, striking a reassuring vote, to advise his fellow parents that “London is a great and safe city, and that everybody should allow their kids to grow up here with confidence and freedom.”

I was able to ask him some specific questions about the parts of London that had been affected, why he thought the riots had happened and how the issues they have raised should be addressed. We talked for about eight minutes – more time than it’s usually possible to grab with him – and he said some interesting things. I reproduce just about all of our conversation below:

DH: It’s very nice to see you in Hackney, though obviously not at the locations where the burning and looting and disruption took place. I understand that there might be very good reasons for that, but…

BJ: I am going [to those places], ah, shortly. Not necessarily today, but soon. I’ve got a heavy agenda. I’ve got to go and reopen the Croydon Tramlink, for example.

DH: That’s great. So in the future will you be taking a close interest in all the parts of London that have been particularly hurt and damaged? Because that seems to be quite important in terms of trying to figure out what happens next.

BJ: Yes. Look, Dave, let’s be clear. It’s too early yet to begin the kind of big post mortem. What we’re looking at still is getting it right, calming it down, repairing, business confidence about the compensation they’re entitled too, getting the money where it needs to go – we want to make sure people understand that it’s being dispensed. And, of course, Hackney – everything that happened in Hackney – is going to be very high on our list. But what I want is for us [London as a whole] to come out better than we were before the riots.

DH: There was a statement you issued shortly after all the rioting began in which you said there is no connection between what happened with Mark Duggan and the immediate aftermath of that, and the rioting that came in the following days. [To be exact, he said in the statement: “These acts of sheer criminality across London are nothing to do with this incident.”] I’m assuming the point you were making was that the rioting can’t be excused [by the Duggan shooting].

BJ: That’s right.

DH: But it wasn’t a coincidence that three days of rioting followed all that went on around the Duggan incident. So would you accept that there has to be a connection of some type between the two things, and that you’ve got to look at that.

BJ: Patently, patently. Absolutely, I would certainly agree with that. And the IPCC has got to do its job, and they’ve got to do it without fear or favour. I tell you, as soon as I got a text on holiday saying that this operation had gone wrong, whatever had happened, I had a bad feeling about it immediately, I have to admit. The IPCC has got to get on and do its stuff, and I’m sure they will get to the bottom of it. But as I said in that statement, I don’t think that any event can excuse or justify what happened and frankly I think the vast majority of people who then took part in the looting and the rioting were by no means actuated by…

DH: Noble sentiments of moral outrage?

BJ: I think it unlikely.

DH: I’m sure you’re right.

BJ: But the other thing, let’s be clear Dave, there are rich ideological pickings for both left and right. That’s the deep truth of the matter. And there are issues here that can cause heart-searching on both sides of the political argument. That’s about as much as I want to say about all that at the moment, because I really want to think about it and try and produce a more considered assessment about what it means, a bit later on. You know what I’m saying…

DH: Yes I do, and it’s very good to hear you saying it. And I understand that in the immediate aftermath of things like this people take rather defensive positions and [only] say, ‘We must stamp down on this,’ and so on. But you do have to do more than that in the end I think.

BJ: And on that, let me just say…well, I don’t want to say much more about it now, but it will become clear that I do not think that this is a simple issue, and I do not think we can simply ascribe it to wanton criminality or simply ascribe it to ‘Tory cuts,’ or whatever, you know.

DH: My last question is really leading on from that. I’m now beginning to scratch my head and ask, what does all this actually tell us about where we are and where we’re going as a city, because stuff has come out of the shadows that was always there and it’s still there, even though it’s gone [from view] again.

BJ: It’s still there. Look, as I say, I want to be more considered about this so please take this as a sort of first, you know. I think London is a wonderful city, and it works brilliantly and it brings people together in the most amazing way. [But] there are huge gaps, inequalities, there are problems of aspiration, of achievement, all sorts of [things] that lead people to behave in absolutely despicable ways. And, you know, I don’t want to get into the whole background field of causation, cos it is very, very various…

DH: And a minefield.

BJ: It is a minefield. But what it has exposed is things to do with society over a long time. I don’t want try to sum it up in a groping way with you now, but what I certainly think is true is that it has exposed issues, and what I really want this to do is to allow us to tackle gang crime, to get a grip on it. There it is, it’s absolutely in the spotlight of the nation, and if this [becomes] our way of dealing with some of the issues that have been exposed…illiteracy or crass materialistic values in young people, whichever way you want to put it, then this is the moment.

So out of this disaster, this blow to London, I think great things can come. London is fundamentally in an amazing, good state at the moment. I was looking at a piece by a French journalist saying, look at the royal wedding, the Olympics coming up, it all looks fantastic, and this suddenly exposes something worse. The opportunity now, that big, flat rock having been flipped up, is to look at the creepy-crawlies.

DH: There’s less excuse for averting our gaze.

BJ: There’s less excuse for averting our gaze, and there’s the opportunity to do something about it. That’s the important thing, cos everybody can see it…I’m telling you far too much.

I hope he’ll telling us more before too long, and I’m grateful to the Mayor for his time. © Guardian News &
Media Limited 2010

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