‘Nothing excuses violence/it’s all about the cuts’. ‘Parents are to blame/society is to blame’ The riots are the legacy of the Labour years/ riots always happen under the Tories’. It’s time we moved on from this sterile party political exchange. Of course violence is inexcusable and has to be tackled by a robust policing, but that doesn’t mean you can detach the riots form social circumstances in which they arise – in particular the lack of jobs and opportunities available to young males in inner cities. We all share responsibility for social unrest by the dispossessed, but it would be ludicrous to ignore the role played by poor parentlng in breeding a generation of nihilistic young people who destroy their own neighbourhod. Urban unrest has no party affiliation, and rather than scoring points, the politicians need to demonstrate that they are capable of rising above their own narrow interests.
Parliament meets today in emergency session to debate the new British disease: urban self-destruction (and yes, I know that it is so far only English cities have been set alight, but I’m coming to that). MPs of all parties will be vying to show they are tough on yobbery if not the causes of yobbery. It will be a novel experience for the police, who are more used to finding themselves under attack from politicians for being too tough – as in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009 – or for being “institutionally racist”. Forget all that: now we want the gloves off.
I even heard Gavin Esler on BBC’s Newsnight grilling a senior police spokesman over why they hadn’t used plastic bullets at the weekend. If the police had used plastic bullets Newsnight would surely have been the first to condemn the injuries inflicted on rioters and the inevitable innocent bystanders. As with the calls for water cannon, which we will hear today from numerous MPs, the problem is that the police are not dealing with organised street fighters who stand their ground. They are dealing with flash mobs of looters and arsonists which are liable to pop up anywhere. That kind of riot control may be appropriate in Belfast, but not in Birmingham or Bristol.
And did I really hear Diane Abbott, the radical black MP for Hackney, saying there should be a curfew in her constituency? A curfew! Had that been suggested that after the urban riots in the 1980s, it would’ve been condemned by politicians like Abbott as an assault on black youth by a racist police force using the methods of a totalitarian state. “Red” Ken Livingtsone, the former London mayor, was out-bidding the Tories last week in calling for more police. So, this is a very changed political climate and a very changed Westminster.
David Cameron will insist that he never really wanted to ‘hug a hoodie’. The prime minister isn’t used to using the language of “loranordah’, which helped give the old Tories the “nasty party” image, but he’ll learn fast. We voters are fickle. We want criminals to be understood and young people given a chance – but not if it involves burning down shops in Clapham. Cameron has already indicated that he wants to see more prison places, which will bring him into direct confrontation with his Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who wants to empty the prisons of young people sent there for relatively minor offences like, er, hooliganism, shop-lifting and breaking windows.
Cameron is also going to have to placate the police, who have been complaining bitterly about cuts, not least in their generous pensions. There have been ugly suggestions that the police allowed the cities to burn out of pique at the government’s assault on their privileges. I”m sure that’s nonsense. Nevertheless, Margaret Thatcher made a point of upping police pay before the miners’ strike in 1984 just to make sure…
The ghost of Tony Blair will be stalking Westminster today, but MPs aren’t looking for ASBOs any more but broken heads. That’s really what we’re talking about. If those police officers who were seen running away from the rioters in Woolwich had stood their ground, there would have been blood. They were clearly outnumbered and would’ve had to use maximum force to disable the rioters – and that means breaking bones and skulls with their batons. Their reluctance to use force thus far is only partly down to `’political correctness’ and is largely because of the likely repercussions of any fatalities. Now that the revolution really is televised, by CCTV and cameraphones, police know that they are under surveillance as much as the rioters and they wear identification. .
Of course, Labour will try to have it both ways by saying the rioting was “mindless and inexcusable” and then blaming it on government cuts, as Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman did in that eye-popping encounter with the Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove on Tuesday’s Newsnight. Gove erupted in righteous indignation at her suggestion that people were robbing J+D Sports because the education maintenance allowance is being scrapped. But Labour know that they can score easy political points here. Lack of jobs and opportunities is a obviously a factor. The rioters are the dispossessed of a society that is obsessed with material gain, bling, cribs whatever.. The hoodies see the government cuts while bankers enrich themselves, and even with their limited education can put together a spurious moral justification for theft, organised by Blackberry phones.
But not, it seems, in Scotland. Perhaps they haven’t learned to use them here. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, said that Scottish yobs have not been trashing their towns because “we have a different society”. I hope those words don’t come back to haunt him. I’d like to think that the abolition of tuition fees was keeping Scottish youth on the striaght and narrow, but I suspect the same kind of nihilistic alienation is being incubated in Scottish housing estates, even though we have a more social democratic politics here. The Scottish yob doesn’t tend to follow a lead given by the English, which I fear may explain the lack of copy cat violence in Glasgow or Aberdeen.
Of course, the unmentionable factor is that the Afro-caribbean community is much smaller in Scotland, and they tend to be the ones who have the most difficult relationship with the police. Remember that the trigger for the rampage was the shooting of the suspected black Tottenham gangster, Mark Duggan,last week. It was a protest against police delay in admitting that Duggan hadn’t shot first that turned into the riot. It might take another factor, perhaps sectarianism, to spark similar violence among the white Scottish underclass.
So far as we know the Asian community is too busy running businesses to have the time to trash them. Now that three Asians have died in Birmingham trying to defend their stores, the police will be under even greater pressure to use whatever is necessary to protect lives and property. This is a watershed. Listen to parliament today, and you will hear a harsher, punitive almost Victorian approach to law and order. As John Major put it: they’ll condemn a little more and understand a little less.