At Millwall and Newcastle the mindlessness of the few is fuelling a vigorous rightwing campaign against working class 'idlers'
At the end of a long week of simmering anger, the mood turned truly sour in Britain's marginal fringes this weekend. Despite rumours in the rightwing press that they were planning to confront anti-Thatcher demonstrators in central London on Saturday, supporters of Millwall Football Club ultimately turned against each other at Wembley, as violent clashes marred their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Wigan Athletic. In the north-east on Sunday the internecine violence was even worse: 29 Newcastle United supporters were arrested for violent disorder following a miserable 3-0 defeat to local rivals Sunderland.
It should go without saying that there is no excuse for pissed-up thuggishness in this vein. However, while we shouldn't try to apologise for the behaviour of a minority of idiots, we should at least try to explain why there has been a resurgence of football-related violence. It seems that something is stirring on the fringes of popular culture, an atmosphere of inchoate rage, confusion and bewildered fury, of which the violence this weekend was merely an extreme expression. We dismiss these smoke signals at our peril.
In the eyes of the Conservatives, the behaviour of the lumpen "hordes" of Newcastle supporters marks the return of the "English disease" of football hooliganism. But while no one can doubt that some fans behaved in a hooligan-esque manner at the weekend, the idea that we are returning to the terrace subculture of the 70s and 80s – with its organised "firms" and its paraphernalia of Stanley knives, amphetamines and designer clothing – is absurd.
Instead, we might do better to look on these incidents of violence as precisely that – scattered incidents that are symptomatic not so much of the return of an organised, coherent subculture, but of the continuing lack of it.
Like the 2011 London riots, the disorder this weekend was spontaneous and unfocused. It had no discernible purpose, and its effects are likely to be wholly negative – not just for the perpetrators, but also for the wider working class communities in south-east London and north-east England who are now suffering the indignity of being represented in the national media by way of a familiar vocabulary of "yobs", "hooligans" and "scum".
As John Harris points out, the radical right is itching for the chance to use the obsession with "football and pop music" among British working-class people as a means of emphasising that they are "the worst idlers in the world". Right now, in areas of the country where positive political representation and organisation are virtually non-existent, the mindlessness of the few is used to justify a vigorous rightwing campaign against the many. We must look beyond the sound and fury into the places where other, less visible working-class people are suffering in silence, though with just as much desperation and mounting rage.