David Cameron’s efforts to heal his “sick society”, following rioting and looting in a number of large British cities last week, will likely further exacerbate problems in deprived areas.
Having caught police and politicians unawares, there was a genuine sense of bewilderment from the British establishment at what was happening on the streets of their capital city, and further afield, as scores of shops were broken into and set alight.
These weren’t scenes that anyone had ever expected to see in English cities and it immediately became apparent that nobody knew what to do. The initial police response could generously be described as shambolic and it seemed like law and order had completely broken down while officers stood back and looked on, under strict instructions not to intervene – even as more and more buildings went up in flames.
Following a huge public outcry, which cut politicians’ holidays short, vast numbers of police patrolled London’s streets and the riots came to an end – but not before five people were dead and hundreds of millions of pounds of damage had been caused.
In the aftermath of the chaos, as police and politicians try to restore public confidence in state institutions, much of the response has felt more like a slick PR exercise rather than any genuine attempt to deal with the problems that sparked the unrest.
So far, everything from hip hop, absentee dads, black culture, and bad parenting has been blamed but the reasons that thousands of, predominantly, young people, in different cities, took to the streets and broke the law cannot be explained away so easily.
Cameron, for obvious reasons, refuses to accept that his cutbacks, which have seen youth centres in some of the poorest areas of the country closed, police funding decimated, and college fees set at £9,000 per annum in most universities, have anything to do with the unrest.
While poverty is not an excuse for anti-social behaviour, in our consumerist society, which makes instant assessments of people’s worth based on the kind of clothes they wear or car they drive, the kind of despair that is adopted by people who see no way out of their dead-end job or dead-end flat cannot simply be dismissed as insignificant.
Similarly, the draconian punishment now being meted out in British courts, for relatively minor crimes, will almost certainly further deepen tensions. Of course criminality needs to be punished but some degree of nuance in the sentencing should be expected. Instead, there have been some truly idiotic sentences, like the 24-year-old mother-of-two who slept through the riots but was jailed for six months for accepting a pair of looted shorts from a friend the next morning.
Not to be outdone in the stupid stakes, another judge sentenced a 23-year-old student, with no previous criminal record, to six months in prison for stealing a bottle of water from Lidl. Sentencing the young man, he told him he was lucky that the matter was not being sent to a higher court, where he could be given an even tougher sentence, to be dealt with.
Meanwhile, the police, desperate to save face after they were stung by criticisms about their initial reactions to the riots, have been inviting camera crews from 24-hour news stations to accompany them as they physically drag teenagers from grotty-looking flat complexes.
I watched incredulously over the weekend as detectives broke down the door to a sad little terraced house and, what looked like, about 30 pumped-up officers wearing anti-stab vests poured in to arrest one skinny teen. It looked more like an inane episode of Cops than any kind of public service programming.
I’m no police tzar, but it strikes me that the zealous nature of the high-publicity arrests is a tad OTT and that taxpayers’ money would have been far better spent preventing the wholesale destruction of large swathes of London when rioting first started in Tottenham.
Not to be outdone, home secretary Theresa May now wants to discard long-standing legal practice and start naming children who are convicted of any involvement in the rioting. It’s unclear why she wants to publicly name children, some as young as nine, who are convicted of crimes but she evidently believes that she can shame, and scare, ‘em straight – a much cheaper solution than actually having to invest in their communities, schools, and youth clubs.
May has also praised the odious actions of Conservative-controlled Wandsworth Council which has issued an eviction notice to a woman whose son appeared in court charged in connection with the riots – even though he hasn’t even been convicted yet.
“If there is a member of a family who has been out there on the streets involved in these riots, where has that family been in ensuring that that individual is not involved in that activity? This one of the issues we need to look at.
“On the issue of evections, those parents should have been making sure that their youngster was not involved in this activity. They may see they actually have to pay a price for the fact they’ve not been unknowing in what their youngsters were doing,” she said, apparently of the belief that making families homeless will somehow reduce crime and restore public order.
The danger of having a Conservative-led government running the country in the wake of these riots is that they now have the perfect excuse to enact all sorts of crazy new laws and policies under the guise of being tough on crime.
So, we have seen calls for even more evictions and for benefits to be rescinded for those convicted of crimes – which begs the question, how can people with absolutely no money survive other than engaging in criminality?
Cameron is pretty good a coining trite sound bites but the “slow motion collapse of morals”, as he’s called it, cannot be mended by jailing 3,000 teenage rioters and merely talking tough on crime.
Meanwhile, Labour leader Ed Miliband has contrasted the government’s reaction to the riots and other recent high-profile scandals.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen this kind of me-first, take-what-you-can attitude. The bankers who took millions while destroying people’s savings: greedy, selfish, immoral. The MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, immoral. The people who hacked phones to get stories and make money for themselves: greedy, selfish and immoral. Let’s talk about what this does to our culture,” he said.
Regrettably, it doesn’t appear as if Cameron is up for a reasoned debate – not when he can try to score some easy points with his hang ‘em and flog ‘em conservative base.