The recent riots in England have prompted a search for root causes on both sides of the Atlantic. Many theories are being offered to account for the violence: budget cut-backs, lack of economic opportunity, immigration, racism, lack of respect for law and order, family breakdown, lack of education, street gangs and on the list goes and grows. All of which have undoubtedly played their part, but, listening to the rhetoric, one might believe youth violence is a recent phenomenon in the United Kingdom.
Which, of course, it isn’t, for hooliganism and brawling among youth has been a part of British culture for as long as I can remember. So whatever the root cause or causes, they’ve been with us since, at least, the 1950s and were present during economic booms and recessions alike.
Some readers may be old enough to remember the Teddy Boys of the 1950s and role they played in the 1958 Notting Hill race riots in London and other violent clashes. In the early-mid 1960s, Mods and Rockers, two conflicting youth subcultures, brawled at seaside resorts like Brighton and Bournemouth on British Bank Holidays. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s there were the Skinheads with their racially-motivated violence.
Then followed the brawls, vandalism and intimidation of English football (soccer)hooliganism—the English Disease. In May 1985 a 14-year-old boy died at St Andrews stadium following violence at a match between Birmingham City and Leeds United. Even after some 20 years of relatively good behaviour among English football fans, hooliganism seems never to be far from the surface and is on the rise—103 incidents of hooliganism occurred in the 2009-10 English football season compared to 38 the season before.
Moreover, violent street gangs in England go back to, at least, my grandmother’s time and probably a lot further back than that. Street gangs in cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool accounted for 65 per cent of firearm homicides in England and Wales.
So perhaps the definition of the term English Disease, normally associated with soccer hooliganism, should be expanded to include the much broader youth violence that seems to have plagued English society for decades—some believe centuries (the history of London gangs is well documented in Fergus Linnane’s London’s Underworld: Three centuries of vice and crime).
I wish the English well in their search for the cause of random youth violence in their society. I just wonder if the current crop of politicians is up to the task.