Monday, August 15, 2011

Manchester's historical traditions and the riots of 2011

Shops were looted in Manchester, police were attacked. The poor and disenfranchised were making their voices heard after years of brutal repression and intolerable living conditions. The middle classes of Manchester were hated by the workers who seethed with injustice. No, not August 2011, but 1842, when the Chartist uprisings reached a crescendo.

And as the city reflected on the very week in 1819 that 15 people were killed and hundreds injured at Peterloo, when the Manchester Yeomanry attacked a crowd of protestors, it is well to reflect on the historical parallels with today and how we interpret the riots in the city centre and Salford. Indeed, Tristram Hunt MP did just that at a sparkling lecture on Peterloo at the People's History Museum on Friday night. He concluded, rightly, briefly, that the riots were an outbreak of horrific criminality. But history never ends at a line drawn on an era. Peterloo took years, decades, to force change.

So I do think the rioting was part of a historical tradition unique to Manchester and Salford. Please bear with me. But it had absolutely nothing to do with the fine, noble and courageous sacrifices of struggles that have marked these great twin cities. They have been at the forefront of democracy, feminism and vegetarianism - and even the competing radicalisms of free trade, trade unionism and the co-operative movement.

But there has always been something murky under and often on the surface of Manchester life. Gangsterism.

Forget that buffoon David Starkey and his hopeless attempts to understand street culture, the celebration of mob rule, criminality and the gang exploded to the surface on our streets last week. And it wasn't for the first time. What was it that sounded the death knell for Madchester club culture in the 1990s? Gangsters.

This isn't a working class thing either. How many financial scandals have been rooted here? Barlowe Clowes, Lexi, VAT scammers and the wealthy gangsters who live alongside the celebrities and footballers in the Cheshire golden triangle. Gangsters.

This isn't yet another piece of punditry claiming to have the answers, but just a sad and grumpy recognition that we live amidst some horrible people who inspire some very stupid people to be like them.

PS If you want some sensible comment on the riots there's loads out there. I tip my hat in the direction of the following: Martin Bright, Simon Marcus, John Robb, Charlie Brooker, Ed Owen on Daddy Be Good, Harriet Sergeant, Peter Oborne and Polly Toynbee.

They reach different conclusions. They come from different perspectives, some of them are a bit shrill, but that is what is important for everyone who cares to do here. Think and listen. Open your mind, step out of your comfort zones and your echo chambers. Stop this pathetic descent into "he said, she said, yes but" name calling. Try and forge a solution that can save our society from barbarism. All of us.

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