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Tuesday 9th August 2011 | 12:08
It is far too soon to say what the political consequences of the terrible events of the last few days will be - but all we can say is that they seem certain to be far-reaching and that it is possible to predict some amongst the dozens of questions raised by the violence.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said this morning that they were ‘stretched beyond belief in a way never seen before’. This should come as no surprise. Our police force are simply not cut out for this kind of mass criminal activity from so many individuals in so many different locations – as has been said many times this morning, our society is kept safe through consensus not through force.
Could actions be taken to better equip our police force? Certainly adding water cannons to their armoury would be possible. What, however, would be involved in having a police force of the scale needed to deal with a situation like this the moment it arises? And what would be the cost? There seems little doubt that these questions will grow ever louder.
There will, at the very least, be pressure on the Government to U-turn on planned police cuts.
But there will also be questions about the underlying causes of this violence that will largely only surface once the rioting has died down and many many more arrests have been made.
Instinctively, many Labour figures will present as a natural consequence of an austerity agenda. There have already been comments around everything from police cuts (which would make sense had they yet been implemented) and the EMA hike (the argument presumably being that many of these kids would have previously been able to buy the HD flatscreen TV they were stealing from Currys?) To attack any one policy decision, however, seems like a political dead end – and one it’s very possible left-wingers will fall into. Ken Livingstone doubtless did his election chances no favours on Newsnight last night.
If the Government has contributed to this situation, it seems far more likely it has done so simply by being 'Conservative' – part of a culture many of these rioters would have been brought up to justify hating. This factor is probably small, but must be brought into any analysis. Would this have been slightly less likely to have kicked off under a Labour government? Possibly, but only because they were 'Labour' rather than anything they did.
This doesn’t mean that the deep underlying questions don’t remain – and the answers to them needn’t necessarily favour the Labour Party. A few years ago, David Cameron would constantly talk of a ‘broken Britain’ – surely a society in which parents have lost all control of their children, who in turn will risk their own and their neighbours' lives for a Sony Blu-Ray or simply having a bit of fun smashing shop windows suggests he might be on to something?
Where does this leave the Big Society agenda? The spontaneous clean-up from a ‘volunteer army’ on Walworth Road to Luciana Berger MP’s work in Liverpool shows the clear wish of the law-abiding majority to protect and rebuilt their communities. This is surely what the Prime Minister wants to encourage – and if the ‘Big Society’ programme can be repackaged in such a way that people actually understand it, it could finally gain traction from these events. There is surely a wish to care a little more about our neighbours and organise our local areas a little better.
Finally, there are all the deep questions around disengagement, youth unemployment, education and even parenting itself. There will unquestionably be calls from across the political spectrum to address these underlying causes, especially what makes ‘good kids turn bad’. Some will highlight the level of cuts to voluntary groups, from both councils themselves and Eric Pickles’ department, as such groups often deal with those young people on the fringes. But surely the big questions will surround education and parenting. What can be done to ensure all young people actually have good job prospects, are taught the values of discipline and hard work and that parents feel they can bring them into line. The ‘long tail’ of young people who begin to fail educationally at primary school and drop out of secondary school with no qualifications will need to be addressed.
What seems likely however is that the public won’t tolerate the government ignoring these deep-seated problems, or not come up with solutions to them. As the first major public disorder in the age of the twitpic, this crisis has felt very real and very close. It should also be pointed out that Brixton, Peckham, Tottenham and elsewhere are far more economically diverse than they were in 1981 – just the sort of places where the children of Middle England might rent their first flat and Victorian side-streets are quietly gentrifying.
All of this will, of course, require leadership – and the presence of that quality remains to be seen.