Rioting spread across a number of major cities in England last night, including many parts of London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Bristol.
The police, who face significant government cuts, struggled to respond to fast-moving and rapidly changing events.
Most of the looting and disorder has been in economically deprived parts of the country, and among young people.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have been among the senior politicians forced to abandon expensive overseas holidays and relaxation in the sunshine by the wave of unrest sweeping across the country.
Mr Cameron is chairing the emergency government planning committee, Cobra, this morning, but has made no official comment since returning to Britain.
Politicians from all parties have lined up to describe the events as "mindless violence". Deputy PM Nick Clegg claims the events have nothing to do with the death of a man in Tottenham shot by police, and their heavily criticised response, or with urban deprivation and the heavy cuts on social spending and welfare his government has pursued. But others on the ground, though deploring the violence, disagree.
"The elite political class in Britain has been completely caught off guard and flummoxed by these developments," a London-based youth worker told Ekklesia this morning. "Of course there is a huge amount of criminality and copycat looting involved in all this. But to pretend it has nothing whatsoever to do with the erosion of our social fabric, the closing of youth centres, and the sense among a mass of people - not least the young - that they have no real future in a country where the poorest are being made to sacrifice most while bankers get away with murder... that's pure fantasy."
The scenes witnessed over the past three days are the worst rioting the country has seen in two decades - when the harsh policies of Margaret Thatcher were seen by many as tipping points in urban disintegration and summer violence.
Armoured vehicles were used in riot control tactics in London last night, and the authorities are considering a number of measures to control disturbances, including water cannon, curfews and an army presence.
The social and political turmoil is being matched by financial dislocation too, as European stock markets continue to show sharp falls following a massive sell-off in US and Asian markets.