Unwanted echo of the 80s as riots return to our cities
It’s been an awful week of violence and wanton destruction on our streets. I won’t have been the only one glued to 24 hr news late towards dawn on those four nights of chaos. I won’t have been the only one who welcomed rain back to Manchester on Wednesday like a returning protector. It’s been an awful week and thoughts are particularly with those who have suffered loss of life or injury, loss of their home, business or job.
It’s not been a good week for the London Police, the Justice System or Public Authorities; but it’s been wretched for this deplorable Conservative Government and Comotose Clegg. We need them to do a lot better.
What we know.
On Thursday in Tottenham a man suspected with criminal connections is shot dead in his car by police and has in his possession a gun. (Read http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/14/david-lammy-tottenham-mark-duggan for local MP, David Lammy’s account of how rumours developed and the response from police that should have been so much better)
On Saturday – Family and members of the community demand answers from the local police station and there is dissatisfaction with the response or lack of it. From there we know that anger escalated into a riot with subsequent looting and burning of properties. This spreads to nearby areas of Wood Green.
On Sunday the disturbances spread further in London and escalate in Brixton, Hackney, Walthamstowe and Enfield. At this stage the focus is on confrontation with the police and the level of frightening violence is escalating. Opportunistic looting becomes endemic. It emerges that pretty much the whole of Government is away on holiday in an unprecedented deriliction of duty. Cameron, Clegg, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, George Osborne all away creating a vacuum of political leadership.
By Monday night it was clear things were out of control in London and copycat incidents were spreading beyond London. The overwhelming impression provided by 24 hr news was either the police were static or late providing a response for instance in Ealing. These images and reports were being broadcast all over the world, particularly burning businesses in Enfield (Sony) and Croydon (Reeves).
On Tuesday, we start to see Government ministers return from their holidays and we predictably hear the words “unacceptable” and “we will not tolerate” a lot. Manchester forced to loan a hundred police to London and in the evening, Manchester gets hit. By now it is no longer about confronting the police, it’s organised mob burglary.
Wednesday The surge in the rogue’s gallery of faces caught on CCTV becomes a flood. And the rain threatens a flood of a more conventional nature. The riots seem to have run their course and parliament meets to take the credit. Was it worth the expense of flying all those MPs back; too soon to make a measured response and for ministers, too late to call for the police to get serious? In the event we were subjected to six hours of ‘awfulising’ (=1001 different ways of condemning the criminal behaviour).
What have we learned?
The riots were not caused by the cuts. Labour’s policies in Government failed to address an unequal society and it’s not clear to me that Gordon Brown in particular had an instinct or analysis for places like Harringey.
But the cuts are going to make it more difficult to tackle.
The riots were not caused by Health and Safety Regulation or by the Human Rights Act. Cameron is on another planet if he thinks they were.
Policing of Tottenham in those first days was bad. Whether this was as a consequence of sensitivity or a lack of leadership / morale in the met, I don’t know, but ultimately it gave a signal to the rest of London and the wider country that there was a good chance rioting could be profitable.
Neither the Parliament nor the media nor London’s Metropolitan Police are capable of the moral leadership that they should be offering whilst so many have been tainted by their own disregard for any sense of propiety. How can MPs who ‘looted’ their own plasma TVs or even garden sheds from the expense office make any contribution that people will listen to? Some believe corruption at the top of our society has had an impact on the readiness to loot displayed by so many. Whether this was true, who can say? But it obviously does compromise our ability to repair our damaged communities. It would be good to see the remaining dregs from that shameful time do the right thing and make it clear they’re not standing again. And yes I am still angry over the expenses scandal!
However, there has been much that is positive to take forward from the aftermath. At last young people in deprived areas are being given a voice. Too often in the past it’s been professionals with a vested interest but at last we’re getting to hear the authentic voice. We may not like what we hear but at least we’re hearing it. If we can address the roots of these issues and work with communities rather than making gestures to feel good about ourselves. we could be onto something at last.
I’ve been quite impressed with Ed Miliband this week. He’s avoided the knee-jerk in favour of a considered response. Cameron is pursuing gimmicks, but even here there’s positive, he now knows that the risk of ignoring forgotten areas is that they come back to haunt him. But finally I want to pay tribute to the police in Greater Manchester. Everything I’ve seen suggests that they got the policing of Manchester and Salford exactly right with the resources available to them. I worry that the courts and housing associations are getting caught up in a febrile atmosphere. I want to see the arsonists and ringleaders given appropriately heavy sentences but we need to keep a sense of proportion when it comes to the stupid kids on the periphery. But it’s clear the police have done a fantastic job in identifying and preparing the cases in the aftermath.