After the British Riots: What Comes Next?

08/22/2011 11:02 am ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011
  • Erik Bleich Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College

When riots erupt in wealthy liberal democracies, the first question people ask is "why?" After the initial media attention, national soul-searching, and political finger-pointing dies down, states are left with hard decisions about what to do next. In the wake of the 2011 riots, the British government may choose to amp up repressive measures by boosting police budgets, it may introduce accommodating measures such as distributing social welfare funds to blighted neighborhoods, or it may undertake some combination of the two strategies.

Taking a cue from the vast literature on the American riots of the 1960s and 1970s and from the proliferating studies of riots in developing countries, Carolina Caeiro, Sarah Luehrman and I examined how West European states responded to ethnic riots in the post-1980 period. Our analysis of four controlled comparison cases -- including responses to the British riots of 1981 and of 2001 -- suggests a common pattern.

In keeping with what is called the "social control" perspective most recently articulated in the American context by Richard Fording, European states tended to deploy a mix of repressive and accommodating strategies, rather than simply one or the other. But in line with insights drawn from the Indian case by Steven Wilkinson, electoral incentives also come into play. Governments of the right called on the police and the justice system more than on the welfare state when dealing with ethnic minority rioters. Governments of the left leaned in the opposite direction.

This argument has to be further tested, since it relies on a small sample size. But the recent events in England allow us the opportunity to make social scientific lemonade out of British lemons. If we are correct, Cameron's government should not only crack down on protesters, but should also unearth funds to open community centers or to implement jobs programs for at-risk youth.

As in life, so in the social sciences: there are many factors that can intervene to derail the outcome we expect. Rafaela Dancygier has already suggested in a Monkey Cage post that the Labour party's tendency to analyze the riots as the result of bad morals and worse parenting increases the odds of purely repressive state actions. But with so much disruption and damage, can any government rely solely on one type of tool when it has other effective ones at its disposal?