Riots across London this week could not have come at a worse time for a country preparing to welcome millions of visitors to the Olympics next summer and struggling to attract investment as its economy falters.
Images flashed around the world of burning buildings, looters ransacking shops and police fighting with masked gangs risk damaging Britain's reputation as a place to visit and do business, analysts and business leaders said on Tuesday.
Crisis management expert Alex Woolfall said it was crucial that the police and government end the rioting quickly to avoid causing lasting damage to the perception of Britain overseas.
"If the story becomes 'one week of summer madness', then it will come and go and people will move on," said Woolfall, an executive at public relations company Porter Novelli.
"But if this drags on, or worse, that it looks like there is a genuine inability to stop it, then that really does start to change perceptions," he said, adding that the danger lay in worries building about security and whether the country had enough police.
The British Retail Consortium, a trade body which represents 90 percent of stores, said the rioting sent an "appalling message" to people at home and abroad.
"It will put people from other parts of the UK, and from abroad, off going to London in the medium term," said a spokesman.
Any decline in tourists' spending would be hard on British retailers at a time of low consumer confidence and public spending cuts. Britain's economy barely grew in the second quarter following six months of stagnation.
But while the front pages continue to focus on the bad news, there is also a counter-movement gathering pace on the sidelines. Hackney, where I live, woke up this morning to blaring sirens and a wounded community galvanised into action. Clean ups had already been arranged so residents could gather, brooms and bin bags in hand, to reclaim their high streets. I arrived at Bethnal Green’s 10am clean-up at around 10.10am. By then Tower Hamlets council and volunteers had already cleaned up so thoroughly that the group was able to move their efforts to Hackney. Like most people there I had been alerted to the operation by the RiotCleanUp profile on Twitter. It began shortly after midnight today and now has some 69,000 followers. As I write #riotcleanup is London’s top trending topic on Twitter, ahead of #LondonRiots. The focus for Londoners is on sorting out this mess and getting their city back in shape. You can see images of them in action here.
Other stories of local pride and courage are emerging, too. In Dalston, groups of Turkish shopkeepers and restaurant owners congregated on the streets to protect their stores collectively. It seems they succeeded. There’s the story of how looters raided The Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill and sought to steal from terrified customers before staff chased them away with rolling pins and whatever other random kitchen utensils were at hand. Diners were provided with champagne and whiskey to help calm their nerves. Today, members of the public are invited to gather in Trafalgar Square from 5-7pm this evening and respond to the riots with peaceful demonstration and mass meditation.
With so many people joining forces to mend our city there will hopefully many more positive stories emerging from this anarchy as the days go on. London’s a huge, restless city and you need stamina and smarts to live here. The people of London are too strong to let this city be held to siege.