The major riot of Morris’s socialist period was ‘Black Monday’, 8 February 1886, when, as E.P. Thompson puts it, ‘The Socialists led the crowds up Pall Mall for a further meeting at Hyde Park. There was some jeering from the clubs. The unemployed retaliated with stones and window-smashing, and then a good deal of indiscriminate damage and looting took place, in which Morris’s own shop was lucky to escape’. Morris himself had not in fact been present at these events on the day, but, as Thompson notes, ‘the Trafalgar Square riots were a sudden test of Morris’s ability as a Socialist leader, and also of the sincerity of his revolutionary opinions’.Our own riots of 2011 differ in significant ways from the 1886 troubles: there is no Socialist leadership of any kind, and there is a racial dimension here (in the police killing of Mark Duggan and the long-term background of racist policing in Tottenham and elsewhere) which Morris could never have imagined. But of our riots we could still say what he did of his own, in the pages of Commonweal in March 1886: ‘What was the meaning of it? At bottom misery’. A generation of young people thrown on the economic scrapheap under both New Labour and the Con-Dems; obscene financial bonuses made by bankers and City traders; hopelessness and rage, with the gloomy world economic situation making our own grotesque inequalities and savage cuts to welfare provision all the more devastating. No major English political party speaks out against all this, and thus, as Martin Luther King insisted, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’.
The violence, looting and fires on our streets over the last few days are the ugly dark truth of Cameron's and Clegg’s England, not whatever glossy Olympic facade we might be able to muster for global media consumption in twelve months time.