Now, in London, is not good moment to be a thinking liberal. The recent riots consume everybody’s attention, but there is too much anger and panic around to say anything sensible. But nobody will listen if you want to talk about something else.
The anger is not in itself unhealthy, or bad – indifference would be much worse. It may well have helped to stop the violence, which has thankfully calmed very rapidly. But little of lasting value comes from it. Mostly we get calls for extra punishment, police powers and so on. There is a lot of harking back to mythical earlier times when people had stronger moral values beaten into them, and so on. And we get the usual tripe about too much human rights favouring criminals rather than victims. Unfortunately our Prime Minister seems to share many of these beliefs.
But as the anger settles we will be left to confront a number of questions, which do not have ready answers. Why did so many people think it was OK to go rampaging like this? How could they be so heedless of the consequences of their actions? Is this new? Is it getting better or worse? How do we promote responsibility? More facts will help us answer these questions – and we have little more than an accumulation of anecdotes at the moment.
The most rational debate for now is about policing. The police weren’t ready for the trouble and did not handle it well. And they are facing significant cuts in funding. Personally I suspect the problem is weak police management, especially in the Met. I think this has been evident for a long time. They adopt inflexible tactical methods which they seem unable to adapt to the needs of the moment; common sense gets lost. Their solution is always more men, more money and more powers. Unfortunately they will be unable to deliver cuts without reducing operational effectiveness, even if there are opportunities to make them much more efficient – and it would be very surprising if such opportunities did not exist.
Another aspect of this episode has been a massive closing of ranks by the majority of society. Here in Battersea (scene of the Clapham Junction riots, not, incidentally in Clapham itself, as almost universally mis-reported) masses of people turned up to help the clean-up – and the hoardings on the shops are covered in supportive graffiti (where these are bare wood; where painted they are left properly pristine!).
This reaction seems to bridge class, race and age group.
Who can say where all this will lead?