Comment: New dangers face bruised Britain's politicians

Politicians must tread carefully in the aftermath of the riots
Politicians must tread carefully in the aftermath of the riots

Community relations, spending cuts, vigilantism: the deeply divisive issues being raised in the post-riots debate mean politicians need to tread very carefully indeed.

By Alex Stevenson

Such has been the bewildering nature of this sudden upsurge of criminality that it's taken a while for our elected representatives to get their act together. First they had to return from holiday. Then they had to issue the obligatory, but hardly surprising, condemnatory statements. Only now are we starting to see the first glimmerings of any meaningful political debate emerge.

As they do so, politicians need to be cautious. Britain's society, "sick" or no, is extremely fragile. Any attempt at partisan point-scoring risks alienating the public, potentially risking the gains made in the reputation of politicians through the phone-hacking scandal.

The first danger comes from the opposition's desire to link the rioting to spending cuts. They may be right to do so, but even attempting it is complete folly. Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman appeared to understand that when she appeared on Newsnight yesterday. She listed all the usual suspects - educational maintenance allowance and other spending cuts - as reasons why young people might suspect politicians of being "out of touch". Yet she seemed to understand, too, that this was a risky strategy. "There is no excuse for what happened at all," she added hastily.

Education secretary Michael Gove did not hold back. Her arguments were swept away with all the pomposity he could muster. She was "ludicrous". He was "appalled". Her ideas were "fatuous". Worst of all, she was trying to "speak out of both sides of her mouth".

There are deeply engrained reasons behind these riots, even if they only apply to a very brief period between anger over the death of one man and the subsequent shockwave of grim opportunism which has spread across England. They need to be assessed, but already the perils of doing so are preventing this debate taking place. Initially, the danger will be putting your foot in it, like Harman. In the weeks to come, the broader risk will be that the debate ends up not taking place at all.

Beyond political ups and downs, there are more serious issues to negotiate. David Cameron's statement in Downing Street bowed to right-wing pressure, sending a clear signal that the government has no objections to heavy-handed policing. Rubber bullets, water cannons - any tactic the police want will get the "legal backing" necessary, the PM has said. Civil liberties arguments have been left behind, but it appears the public want it that way: a YouGov survey found nine out of ten support the use of water cannon - up from nearly 70% last December.

Cameron may have bowed to public opinion, but taking retrograde steps backwards shouldn't be embraced so enthusiastically. These should be matters of last resort. Ironically, it's the police - who deal with the pressure of facing 'heavy-handed' accusations - who are striking the best balance. "We're not going to throw away 180 years of policing with communities lightly," the Metropolitan police's deputy assistant commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said yesterday.

The far-right is seeking to tie the disorder to their own twisted purposes, and there are growing fears that the drift towards vigilantism may make this slide worse. Chief Constable Chris Sims, of West Midlands police, has warned against isolated incidents leading to "a wider level of violence between different communities". Groups have appeared on the streets to protect their families and homes are doing so because their faith in the police has been shaken. "In these difficult times," Sims added, "people across all communities must trust the police to protect them." There's a real risk that long-simmering tensions could be sparked.

The first wave of violence, we hope, has now passed. But the destabilising impact of the last few days could be the start of something bigger, as unpredictable now as rioting in Manchester was after the violence in Tottenham on Saturday night. Politicians must tread carefully in these fevered, uncertain summer days. 


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