Friday, 26 August 2011

Prime Ministers Out of Office - the top job en vacances

As buildings burned, shops looted and streets ceded to the control of rampaging youth, the country’s leaders were on holiday. With escalating civil disorder and public demands for action, an unfortunately essential quadrumvirate of the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Mayor of London were en vacances.

They soon returned. The Home Secretary Theresa May flew back on Monday 8 August, followed by David Cameron and Boris Johnson returning on Tuesday 9 August. Less essential figures also cut short holidays – Ed Milliband returned to the capitol on the same day as the Prime Minister.

Although the UK’s elite do not take quite as indulgent approach to August as many on the continent (this report highlights the EU’s deafening communication silence over the traditional holiday period), it is still traditionally a quieter time suitable for a fortnight’s holiday.

With modern technologies, Prime Ministers and the like are never really away from it all. A mobile phone and BlackBerry ensures constant telephonic and email connectivity. And, in reality, it has been the same for decades - the conduits for communication might change (think telephones, faxes, telexes and telegrams), but the principle is the same.

The propensity for Prime Ministers to take holiday is not a recent development. Parliamentary and government business was decidedly less demanding and more infrequent in the days of Walpole, Pitt and Palmerston. They could continue business at their country estates, relying on messengers and signals to keep them in touch with the capital.

In the modern age Gladstone set the pattern for Prime Ministerial travel. He was partial to recuperative holidays in the south of France, visits made all the more pleasant by being paid for by George Armistead. His trips to Cannes, Nice and Biarittz contrast with more ascetic trips to north Wales were chopping trees and lake swimming were the order of the day.

The availability of Royal Navy yachts created opportunities for long coastal trips, either around the waters of the UK or in the Mediterranean. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill had access to the luxury yacht the Enchantress. The vessel certainly placed a spell on him, and he spent over eight months onboard between late 1911 and summer 1914. His spell as wartime Prime Minister severely limited holiday opportunities, but he always had the escape of Chartwell, his beloved house in Kent.

Churchill was not the only political entranced by the Enchantress. It was on board the ship that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith learnt of the death of Edward VII. This truncated trip was vividly outlined at the beginning of Dangerfield’s ‘the Strange Death of Liberal England’. The portentous passing of Haley’s Comet at the same time as the passing of the King is highlighted as an omen of turbulence ahead. The resulting hasty return to the UK demonstrates that the recall of Prime Ministers from holiday is at least a century old tradition.  

The sea was a more direct lure for Edward Heath, who married his political career with a life as a champion winning sailor. His yacht, the Morning Cloud, was his holiday respite, and he made history as the first sitting Prime Minister to compete in and win a yacht race by taking the Admiral’s Cup in 1971.

A series of Prime Ministers have made the Celtic fringe their holiday destination of choice. Lloyd George and Clement Attlee both chose the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales (Criccieth and Nefyn respectively). Lloyd George emulated Gladstone’s preference for earthy pursuits by tending to his garden and planting potatoes. Harold Wilson spent most of his holidays on the Scilly Isles of Cornwall. His connection to the place was so strong he was eventually buried there in 1995. Cameron and Thatcher have also holidayed in Cornwall. A staycation in his Kirkcaldy home in Scotland was the suitably austere location for Gordon Brown’s 2008 holiday.

Prime Ministers do not seem to have strayed much beyond the confines of Europe whilst in office, perhaps aware of the possibility of their imminent recall. This has not prevented more exotic or lengthy trips. The grave economic and political situation in 1936 make today’s outlook seem distinctly benign. This did not, however, prevent Stanley Baldwin taking a three month holiday in France, mostly at Aix-les-Bains. Even workaholic Margaret Thatcher managed to take a few breaks in the company of Lady Glover in Switzerland.

Harold Macmillan shared Baldwin’s ability to get away from it all by frequently spending the bulk of August and September at his wife’s family estate of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Tony Blair would echo Macmillan and Gladstone’s ability to get others to pay for holidays by some decidedly questionable stays at Hosni Mubarak's summer house in Egypt, Robin Gibbs' Florida mansion and several boltholes belonging to of Silvio Berlusconi.

So , as Cameron is pilloried for taking holidays at a time of rollercoaster share and bond prices, riots and urban unrest and the fall of Colonel Gaddafi it is perhaps worth remembering that everyone, even Prime Ministers, need time to unwind.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Tripoli - a score and more of invasions

Footage of fighters perched on jeeps and trucks fills rolling news channels. They are the victors, Kalashnikov feux de joie and a city en fête. The green, black and red flag of Libya’s National Transitional Council drapes armoured vehicles and tanks and is waved energetically in a hastily renamed Martyrs’ Square. The rebels have breached fortress Tripoli, and their army has taken over Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.

The speed of the rebels’ advance has surprised many in Libya and abroad, but fears of bloody street by street close combat have not been realised. Tripoli was the ultimate prize for the Transitional Council. It is not only the capital of Libya, but boasts a strategically favourable spot on the Mediterranean and dominates the oil rich coastal region. The city has a rich history of being won at the point of a gun, sword or spear, and the rebels’ advance is just the latest in a long line of military takeovers.

The city’s ‘foundation’ by the Phoenicians in the 7th Century B.C. may actually have been the conquest of an existing pre-historic settlement. The Phoenicians were in turn displaced by the Greeks in c. 6th Century B.C., extending their control of the north African coast from the town of Cyrenaica. The division of Libya between these historic provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania has been a crucial factor of this year’s civil war, with the eastern province of Cyrenaica at the heart of the rebellion.

The city would then fall to the Carthaginians. No precise date is available for the expulsion of the Greeks, but there is an interesting legend that explains how the border between Carthage and the Greek colonies was established. A pair of champions from Carthage and Cyrene set off from their respective cities on the same day, each pair heading towards the other city. Their meeting place would set the border.

When the runners met, the Carthaginian pair (two brothers from the Philaenus family) had covered more ground and were accused of cheating by the furious Greeks. The Greeks would only consent to the boundary if the Carthaginians agreed to be buried alive at the spot. The brothers agreed, ensuring that the territory between that spot and Carthage would become subsumed into the Punic Empire. The border was marked by two pillars named after the brothers as the “Altars of the Philaeni”. The African territorial boundary between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires was later set on this spot, as was the division between the Libyan provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

By the 2nd Century B.C. the city was taken by Romans, and would remain in their rule as a key and flourishing Mediterranean trading port for 800 years. The city then fell to the Islamic tribes surging out of Arabia at some point in 642 – 643 A.D. It was initially part of the Egyptian based Fatimid and later Mamluk empires before passing to control of the local Berber Almohad empire and Hafsids kingdom.

Its strategic location meant it soon became a main base for the Barbary pirates, who had come to dominate Mediterranean shipping. The pirates had become such a menace to Christian shipping that the European superpower of the day, Spain, tried to drive them out. Tripoli’s nest of pirates was smoked out by a successful invasion in 1510 led by Don Pedro Navarro. The city would remain in Spanish hands for 13 years and was then passed to Knights of St. John in 1523 after their expulsion from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks had left them otherwise homeless.

Although the Knights built up strong defences, including the earliest parts of the Red Castle (Assaraya al-Hamra), they were strangers in a foreign and hostile land and would eventually be driven out by their mortal enemies, the Ottoman Turks, in 1551. The Knights headed to Malta, and Tripoli was once again in Muslim hands. Although Tripoli would stay in nominal Ottoman control until the 20th century, its grip on day to day power in the city ebbed and flowed.

History has long echoes, and the involvement of the US, Italy, the UK and France in this year’s NATO campaign will have given the historically aware Libyan pause for thought. The Americans were first militarily involved in Libya as early as 1801 when the First Barbary War saw the US Navy blockade the Port of Tripoli. US forces visited the Port of Tripoli again in 1815, bringing an end to all US tribute payments and a beginning to the final days of piracy in the region.

On 3 October 1911, the Italians attacked Tripoli, claiming their intervention was as liberator and protector. Libya was ceded to the Italians in the Treaty of Lausanne, but de facto control rarely extended much beyond the capital city until the 1930s. Fascist Italy saw Libya as integral to its plans to recreate a Rome-centred Mediterranean empire. Through the 1930s, Mussolini’s Italy endeavoured to convert Libya into an Italian province to be referred to popularly as Italy's ‘Fourth Shore. Libya was dragged into the Second World War as part of the Italian Empire, and would become central to the north African theatre.

On 23 January 1943 the Allies captured Tripoli, and the British would remain in occupation of the city and country for the rest of the war and beyond. Independence would only come in 1951, but Libya remained a British protectorate - with both the UK and the US maintaining their military bases and control over the country's foreign and defence policies. This came to an abrupt end in 1970 when the British and Americans were ordered to leave by Colonel Gaddafi. History often has a way of coming round in full circles. 

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Bursting the bubble

Inflation has been a hot topic in the UK since October 2009 when it broke free of the Bank of England’s target of 2% and starting soaring towards 5%. This week has seen an intense media focus on the issue, with stories highlighting CPI’s rise to 4.4% in July, regulated rail fares increasing by an average of 8%, hikes in gas and electricity prices of up to 19 and 16 per cent respectively and food prices racing ahead of inflation.
With the majority of earners facing a year of wage freezes or salary reductions, and unemployment rates increasing again, many people face difficult choices on what to sacrifice and how to economise. But is this recent period of inflation historically significant? It is certainly anomalous compared to recent years. Inflation last breached 4% in 1992 and stayed well below 3% until 2009. The rate was so benign that concerns over deflation were raised when CPI hit 0.8% in 2000.
This was the calm after a decidedly volatile 30 years starting in 1961. Inflation began a relentless rise in the sixties and became a major economic issue in the seventies, peaking at 24.2% in 1975. Between 1974 and 1981 inflation stayed firmly in double digits (with the sole exception of 1978’s calmer 8.3%), reaching 18% as late as 1981.
In the long view, wars have produced a rollercoaster of inflationary spikes and deflationary dips:
·         the Napoleonic wars saw prices leap by 36.5% in 1800 marking a UK inflation record. This was followed in 1802 by another record - a decline of 23%;
·         the Crimean War saw a spike in prices of 15.10% in 1854 followed by three consecutive years of deflation in 1857 – 1859;
·         prices more than doubled over the course of the First World War, and were followed by a period of deflation lasting from 1921 and 1933;
·         prices increased by 50% over the course of the Second World War – the rigours of rationing dampening inflationary pressures.
But, whilst Britain has endured a choppy history on prices, it has never come close to the turbulence and destruction of hyperinflation. Hyperinflation is defined as extreme or excessive inflation, and is understood by most economists to mean inflation at a rate of over 50 per cent per month (roughly, prices doubling every two months).
When hyperinflation is mentioned Weimar Germany springs to mind as the most extreme example of hyperinflation. This period produced the classic images of children playing with worthless blocks of banknotes, wheelbarrows being used to take enough money for a loaf of bread and people being paid twice daily to ensure they could buy something with their wages.
In December 1923, prices in Germany were more than 85,000,000,000% higher than a year earlier and the highest denomination bank notes had a face value of more than 1,000,000,000,000 marks. But this isn’t enough to earn it the title of highest ever recorded inflation.
Top 5 periods of hyperinflation
1.       Hungary, 1946 – highest monthly inflation of 13,600,000,000,000,000% with prices doubling every 15.6 hours. The response was to print a one hundred quintillion pengo note (20 zeroes) and, eventually, to scrap the pengo and replace it with the still extant florint.
2.       Zimbabwe, November 2008 – highest monthly inflation of 79,600,000,000% with prices doubling every 24.7 hours.
3.       Yugoslavia, January 1994 – highest monthly inflation of 313,000,000% with prices doubling every 1.4 days.
4.       Germany, October 1923 - highest monthly inflation of 29,500% with prices doubling every 3.7 days
5.        Greece, October 1944 - highest monthly inflation of 13,800% with prices doubling every 4.3 days.
(source: CNBC)
Further reading

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Grandfather of the Euro

It was an ambitious project that would unify several European currencies into a single currency, a standard coinage that could be used throughout the member states. It would facilitate trade and tourism and promote peace and unity throughout the Union. It featured standardised coins, differentiated only by national symbols but otherwise boasting the same dimensions and weight. And, ultimately, it failed, members reverting to issuing their own coinage once more.
Despite the extensive press coverage of the troubles facing the Eurozone, this is not an obituary for the European Single Currency. It is the story of its direct antecedent, the Latin Monetary Union. On 29 December 1865 a monetary convention between France, Italy, Belgium and Switzerland concluded in Paris. The resulting treaty would be ratified on 19 July 1866 and came into force on 1 August 1866.
The treaty formed the Latin Monetary Union, which saw each member state agree to change their national currencies to a standard of 4.5 grams of silver or 0.290322 gram of gold and make them freely interchangeable. The Union was enlarged by the admittance of Spain and Greece in 1868 and Romania, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Serbia and San Marino in 1889.
 The collapse of the Latin Monetary Union has clear lessons for today’s Eurozone leaders. One reason for its failure was the tendency of member states to bend the rules and produce coinage that was not up to scratch. Greece was ejected from the Union in 1908 after reducing the amount of gold in their coins. The most scandalous abuse of the system was from the Papal States, whose treasurer, Giacomo Cardinal Antonelli, oversaw minting of far more coins than they were permitted under the system.
Another factor was the rigidity of rules imposed, specifically the Union's standard exchange rate of 15.5 ounces of silver to 1 ounce of gold. A combination of new finds and improved mining technology decreased the value of silver, making it profitable to exchange at the fixed rate for gold. Finally, the other great powers of Great Britain, Germany and the USA resented the French leadership of the Union. They preferred a more apolitical and neutral gold standard, a monetary system that would survive, more or less, until 1971.
So the Latin Monetary Union was doomed to failure and, in practice, this came with the outbreak of the First World War and the resulting fiscal pressures on its lead members. It survived on paper until the 1920s, and was finally officially laid to rest in 1926.
The Latin Monetary Union is not the only example of a currency union. In 1873, Denmark, Norway and Sweden founded the Scandinavian Monetary Union. This created a fixed exchange rate for a new currency, the krona, based on gold. Just like the Latin Monetary Union, the system collapsed under the pressures created by the First World War.
Two other main monetary systems still exists today:
·         the CFA Franc is the common currency of 14 countries in West and Central Africa (the west CFA Franc covers Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo whilst the east CFA Franc covers Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon); and

·         the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (which sees the East Caribbean Dollar used in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines).
There are also concrete plans for the Khaleeji (a common currency for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates), the East African shilling (covering Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) in the East African Community and the Eco, under the West African Monetary Zone  (Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone).
Further reading
  • Money and Politics: European Monetary Unification and the International Gold Standard (1865-1873), Luca Einaudi
  • Michael Bergmann, Stefan Gerlach and Lars Jonung "The rise and fall of the Scandinavian Currency Union 1873-1920"; European Economic Review 37.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The walls that divide us

The President and Chancellor of a unified Germany and the Mayor of a unified Berlin today marked the 50th anniversary of the building the Berlin Wall. The 87 miles of the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (or Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart in the official GDR terminology) split east and west Berlin for 28 years and became one of the most potent symbols of both the Cold War and, with its destruction, the fall of Communism.
The Berlin Wall as a dividing line has been consigned to history, and the few extant sections remain as tourist and remembrance sites. But there are plenty of other walls that continue to divide groups of people. In Northern Ireland, the peace lines, with their accompanying concrete walls, arrived in 1969 and continue to separate Protestant (or Loyalist) communities from their Catholic (or Nationalist/Republican) neighbours.
There are presently 53 officially maintained peace lines - 42 in Belfast, five in Londonderry, five in Portadown and one in Lurgan. Although many on both sides of the divide would like to see them come down, there has been no progress towards removal. Indeed, lines continue to be drawn and walls erected at new boundaries of sectarian tension.
Other dividing lines include:
  • the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus (otherwise known as the Green Line), running 113 miles following a roughly east to west path and dividing north and south Cyprus;
  • the Moroccan Walls (or the Berm of Western Sahara) a series of barriers (mainly sandbanks) that separate the Moroccan-controlled areas from thosecontrolled by the Polisario;
  • the Korean Demilitarized Zone running 160 miles along the 38th parallel and providing a 2.5 mile wide buffer between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and Republic of Korea (South Korea). Seoul, the capital of South Korea and home to nearly 25 million, is only 30 miles from the DMZ;
  • the Israeli West Bank barrier, a 470 mile wall dividing the Palestinian controlled West Bank from Israel. The different names it has been given reflect the conflict out of which it has emerged. In Israel it is called the separation fence, the security fence or the anti-terrorist fence. Palestinians refer to it as the racial segregation wall or the apartheid wall. Given even describing it as a fence or wall is politically loaded, many foreign journalists try to neutrally refer to it as a barrier.
Walls remain some of the best preserved relics of ancient civilisations. The Great Wall of China  and the frontiers of the Roman Empire  (including Hadrian’s Wall and the Limes (or boundaries) Germanicus and Saxonie) are perhaps the best known. Britain also has Offa’s Dyke  (roughly following a portion of the modern English-Welsh border),  the Antonine Wall (further north in Scotland than Hadrian’s Wall), Scots’ Dike (created in 1552 to mark the agreed border between England and Scotland in the Debatable Lands) and Wansdyke  (medieval earthworks in the West Country).

Friday, 12 August 2011

Screwing the moneylenders

The PIGS are squealing. Barely a day has passed this summer without rumour of sovereign debt default panicking already skittish markets. Greece would have defaulted without massive EU intervention, but even this hasn’t prevented fresh fear of Eurozone-wide contagion. France is the latest casualty, with shares in its financial institutions paying a heavy price this week.  

The spectre of sovereign debt default is not contained to the Eurozone. American politicians played a game of fiscal chicken as the US Treasury came within hours of being unable to service its multi-trillion dollar debt. Both sides eventually flinched, with emergency legislation being passed on 2nd August. Xinhua, the Chinese news agency and voice of US’s biggest creditor, was harsh in its assessment, stating that:

“It is time for the naughty boys in Washington to stop chicken games before they cause more damages.”

It might seem that such financial crises are a product of our financially interdependent and globalised age. But debt crises and sovereign defaults stretch back to when such lending was extended to city-states, kingdoms and empires and when sovereigns were, well, sovereigns. Struzenegger and Zettelmeyer’s surprisingly accessible book on debt default reveals that the first recorded  sovereign debt default occurred in the fourth century B.C.

Ten out of the thirteen members of the Attic Maritime Association defaulted on loans issued by the Delos Temple. Whether these errant city-states were subject to divine wrath is not recorded, but their earthly representatives had a practical response – they took to lending to private concerns rather than public bodies. This default kicks off a long recorded history of financial irresponsibility which has come full circle with today’s Greek crisis.

Debt default was the exception to the norm of dealing with financial problems by currency debasement. The Roman denarius started life in the Republic with an almost pure 4.5 grams of silver. By the time of Nero this had reduced to 3.8 grams, and the fall of Rome was highlighted by the coin being substituted for a bronze issue in the reign of Diocletian.

Henry VIII found himself desperately short of money as he pursued foreign conflict in the 1540s. The short term solution was a wholesale debasement of English coinage beginning in 1546. By 1551, the silver content of the coins was barely a sixth of those minted in the reign of his father, Henry VII. The ‘golden age’ of Elizabeth was accompanied by a silver age for English coins, as quality and confidence in the currency were restored.

Currency manipulation was not a complete solution, however, and, ultimately, a day of fiscal reckoning would come. In 1345, Edward III of England repudiated his debt to the societies of the Bardi and the Peruzzzi in Florence, triggering a financial crisis that would ultimately cause the fall of these two great banking houses. Edward III owed 900,000 florins to the Bardi, and 600,000 to the Peruzzi  - vast sums roughly equal to $6bn in purchasing power terms or $240m based solely on today’s value of the gold at stake.

Defaults would become more common from the 16th century onwards. France and Spain lead a dubious club of European debtors, defaulting eight and six times respectively between 1500 and 1800. The historical antecedents for the solvency of the PIGS are not promising. In modern times Portugal has defaulted five times (1837, 1841, 1845, 1852 and 1890), Greece four times (1826, 1843, 1860 and 1893), Italy once (1941) and Spain a whopping seven times (1820, 1831, 1834, 1851, 1867, 1872 and 1882).

The so-called Anglo-Saxon economies appear to be historically sounder bets – the UK and USA have never defaulted (although the 1840s did see public debt default in the USA as nine states either temporarily or permanently repudiated all or part of their debts (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Territory of Florida form the roll of dishonour)).

All of this shows that sovereign debt defaults are nothing new. Even global financial interdependence is far from being a uniquely 21st century phenomenon  - think of those 14th century sun-baked Tuscans suddenly impoverished by royal command in a remote, rain lashed island far to the north. Perhaps the long view gives some hope – sovereign debt default has happened with surprising frequency, yet the world keeps turning.

Further reading

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Crossing the Mediterranean

Today marks the 144th day of the military intervention in Libya. The operation has been led by British and French forces, and has so far seen no allied combat casualties. It has been conducted entirely from the air and sea with no land deployments currently envisaged.

It is not the first Anglo-French military operation in north Africa.  Operation Torch saw British and American troops fighting alongside Free French to recapture the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria. More ominously, the Suez crisis in 1956 saw an Anglo-French intervention in Egypt following Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Not only did it end in failure, for many it marked a clear end of imperialism for both fading powers (especially coming after the French rout in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954).

The echoes of this epic failure resonated loudly as intervention in Libya loomed. The Guardian’s Julian Glover quotes a British government minister whispering conspiratorially to a colleague; "An Anglo-French military operation in north Africa. How can it go wrong?" So far, the intervention has not gone wrong, but it has not delivered the speedy regime change that many hoped for.

Any European intervention in a country that is at once African, Muslim and Arab will inevitably draw a plethora of historical comparisons. Is it economic colonialism for valuable oil resources? Is it part of a Christian crusade against Islam? Or is it supporting a reassertion of tribal divisions in a somewhat artificially cobbled country?

Modern history provides plenty of comparisons for such military action. But I was drawn by the tale of a much older Anglo-French military expedition to Libya. The Mahdian Crusade (also called the Barbary Crusade) was launched in 1390. It is unusually well documented, featuring in Book IV of Froissart's Chronicles.

Despite being launched in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, it attracted English nobles and their retinues to serve in the overwhelmingly French and Genoese forces. The Hundred Years’ War had provided an outlet for fighting glory and combat, and the crusade partially came about because one of the periodic spells of peace prevailed.

The crusade targeted Muslim pirates operating from Mahdia in modern day Tunisia, striking at the Hafsid Kingdom of modern day Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The wealthy, mercantile and independent Republic of Genoa had offered finance, ships and men and only asked that the French (and their allies) supplied knights and commanders.

A flower of nobility gathered, including Louis II, Duke of Bourbon, Enguerrand VII, Lord of Coucy, Philip of Artois and John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset. The siege and fighting were colourful set pieces with heavy, religious overtones. Little was achieved – the siege was unsuccessful and the negotiated peace saw both sides emerge claiming victory.

Further reading

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Panic on the streets of London

Sirens wail as police vans scream down Green Lanes and the sky hums with the throb of helicopters. As darkness falls over the city, the people wait to see what the fourth consecutive night of rioting will bring. The flames of fear have been fanned by a media frenzy, politicians desperate to be seen getting a grip and rumours that spread almost instantly through workplaces and crowds. Looted shops lie from Enfield in the north to Croydon in the south whilst shattered glass and burnt buildings reach west to Ealing and east to Canning Town. 

Is civil disorder on this scale unprecedented? And does history tell us anything about how the police and politicians should respond to the rioters? One thing is clear - London has a long and turbulent history of riots and civil disorder and this year's disturbances are far from unprecedented. 

An early echo of inequality breeding unrest is found in the riots that follow William Fitz Osbert's incendiary sermons against the rich in 1196. William of Newburgh wrote in the 'Historia rerum anglicarum' that Fitz Osbert (also known as William the Long Beard) led a powerful conspiracy, inspired by the zeal of the poor against the insolence of the rich. Fitz Osbert's punishment was distinctly more savage than anything that will be meted out in 2011. He was convicted and drawn asunder by horses before being somewhat superfluously hanged on a gibbet.

Commentators have suggested that this year's riots are nothing more than mercenary and opportunistic looting. But turning over a branch of JD Sports for a pair of trainers or the Carphone Warehouse for the latest mobile fits neatly into a long line of economically induced disorder. In 1809, over two months of rioting were sparked by rising ticket prices at the Covent Garden theatre. Whilst it might be hard to imagine a hike in West End prices causing violent protest today, the Old Prices riots of 1809 led to 64 days of bawdy unrest. As the Covent Garden theatre was one of the only sites of public entertainment, the demonstrations can be compared to complaints following a sharp rise in the TV license. 

And it doesn't take much to trigger a riot in London. Popular unrest has broken out over a loaf of bread (1391), against brothels (the Bawdy House riots of 1668), between goldsmiths and tailors (1268), against foreigners (the Evil May Day of 1517) and over an anti-vivisection statue (in the gloriously named Brown Down Riots of 1907). 

At the time of writing there was one confirmed death resulting directly from this year's London riots. Whilst hundreds have been admitted to hospital and millions of pounds of property damage has been caused, the loss of life if mercifully low. This is partially due to restrained policing, which has so far resisted using baton charges and eschews the water cannons and routine armament of other police forces. Resisting calls to bring in the army have also ensured lower casualties. 

Neither was the case during the most brutal period of London riots, concentrated on the 1700s and featuring the infamous London Mob. London at this time was a concentrated and politically combustible mass. The English Civil War had caused deep ruptures in society, which had only partially healed through the Restoration. The citizens of London remained deeply suspicious of Roman Catholics and foreigners, which made them ill-disposed to rulers with distinctly Catholic leanings (Charles II and James II) and those transplanted from abroad (William III, George I, II and, to a lesser extent, III).

The main features of the London Mob of the 18th century would be recognisible to anyone reading today's newspapers. It was led by the youth of the city, with apprentice boys at its excitable and volatile core. It was stirred up by rumours of brutality or tyranny from the authorities, and it targeted symbols of power such as the courts, jails and Bank of England. It was at its most terrifying and audacious during periods of economic uncertainty and decline, when the poorest in society faced losing even their breadline existence. 

But the response of the authorities was distinctly more hardline than anything seen in the past century. The Massacre of St. George's Fields (otherwise known as the Wilkite Riots of 1768), the Sacheverell riots (1710) and the Spitalfields weavers' riots (in 1719 and 1769) all featured loss of life when put down by the army. But these handfuls killed would pale compared with nearly 300 deaths resulting from the Gordon Riots (1780).

On 2nd June 1780, Lord George Gordon led a huge crowd of between 40 - 60,000 to deliver a petition to Parliament protesting against the Papists Act 1778. Anti-Catholic zeal was already at fever pitch following France and Spain's entry into the American War of Independence against Britain. Agitation by the Protestant Association was stoked by different nationalistic, economic and political complaints. 

The result was a baying mob descending on Whitehall, festooned with the blue cockade symbol of the movement and with banners declaring No Popery. The authorities were unprepared, and lulled into a false sense of security when the crowd dispersed after the petition  was successfully delivered. Sporadic violence followed that evening, but the real riot began the next night. On 3rd June the mob went wild in an orgy of xenophobic and anti-Catholic violence that focused on the poor Irish community in Moorfields.

In the subsequent hours and days the City was looted, and extensive damage was done to churches, houses, Newgate and the Clink prisons. Charles Dickens wrote a vivid description in Barnaby Rudge, noting how the streets were brightly lit by flames from burning houses, how blazing alcohol streamed down the gutters and looters thronged the lanes.

Boris Johnson has been criticised for only ordering a crackdown on the fourth day of rioting. In 1780 it took five days before the army was called out. On 7 June the army was brought on to the streets and given orders to fire upon groups of four or more who refused to disperse. Approximately 285 people were shot dead and another 200 were wounded. Some 450 rioters were arrested, and about twenty or thirty were later tried and executed. 

Further reading