Let's be clear: we have seen a glimpse of the breakdown of society. We are fighting the idea that might is right.
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
It would have been easy to over-react and Labour probably would have.
On Monday there were plenty of voices calling for a curfew, rubber bullets, water cannons, live rounds and, finally, the army. It was a level of disorder we'd frankly never seen before. It looked almost apocalyptic. The speed of events, their geographical distance, the ferocity of the violence and the depth of the depravity shook all of us. Many people became understandably over-excited.
Historical counterfactuals are a thankless task, but Labour would probably have overreacted. The party is so wary of being vulnerable on law and order that the temptation would have been to give in to those demanding extreme sanction. After all, David Blunkett, who now pretends to be a harmless old man, once tried to send the army in to quell a minor prison riot. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both so panicked by the tabloids they would have been more scared of appearing soft than they were of tearing up constitutional arrangements they never showed much admiration for in the first place.
In that sense the Conservative leaders are, perversely, often more moderate on law and order questions, because they have less to prove. Once Cameron arrived back in the UK he chaired a Cobra meeting, organised the response and then came out to speak to the cameras. His short statement was widely criticised but it was pitch perfect: firm, non-political and without panic. The operational response was also appropriate.
New powers and weapons were not authorised in a flurry of panic. We needed to swamp trouble areas with police, not try to satisfy our frustrations with aimless and unpractical talk of the army. In London, that plan worked, although the decision to concentrate on the capital may have worsened the violence in other parts of the country. Damning the government for focusing on the capital shows the short memory of many of its critics. This time yesterday that argument would have been unthinkable.
At the start it appeared as if Cameron was going to mishandle this crisis as badly as phone-hacking. His reluctance to return from holiday lasted a few too many hours, but that is a forgivable timeframe. It was still reasonable on Monday morning. It was no longer reasonable on Monday afternoon. He boarded the plane Monday evening. Downing Street's explanation, that the situation had clearly escalated, was entirely reasonable.
This was something quite unlike events that came before it. As the New Scientist argued, this was the world's first non-localised riot. The reasons for that are technological and sociological. Instant messaging, a technology which has been playing an increasing role in historic events over the last decade, took this long to massively unsettle the usual pattern of group behaviour. Blackberry's service allows for messages to reach numerous acquaintances instantaneously. It is a free service and the handset is desirable without being as expensive as the iPhone. This set of factors meant its use was prevalent and influential.
Sociologically, a phenomenon that we were aware of but hadn't properly thought through was exhibiting itself in the most dramatic way imaginable. The urban underclass, the faceless hoodies employees pass every day on their way back from work, had discovered a solidarity which they did not know existed. It isn't political. But gangs of youths had discovered that they could feel power on the streets and that they had nothing to lose by doing so. When these realisations come they arrive suddenly and with their own sense of momentum.
These two factors made the riots extremely unpredictable and shockingly widespread. They blew up in an area and suddenly, like smoke, they were gone. Minutes later they exploded somewhere else.
To criticise the government for its lack of preparedness for this eventuality is absurd. None of us predicted it. Questions about police tactics need to be asked, not least about why we appear to have no informants in British gang culture. There's nothing remarkable about that. Debriefing and 'lessons learned' is a consequence of any new development in public order. This was new. It was different. We must judge the government not on its preparation for an unforeseeable event, but for the way it reacted to it.
Cameron's statement outside Downing Street today was noticeably tougher. He accepted that water cannons should be on stand-by and that we would authorise rubber bullets. Let's not be ignorant. Water cannons are a serious weapon. They can disable or even kill, as can rubber bullets. Also, they disperse crowds, which is precisely the problem we are currently facing, so they may turn out to be counter-productive. But the authorisation for potential use is an appropriate response at this stage of the disorder.
Those of us who consider ourselves civil liberties advocates have grown wary of the argument, repeatedly used by authoritarians, that the most important freedom is the freedom of the public to live securely. Its misuse in many counter-terrorism debates should not blind us to the statement's reality in situations such as this one. People have a right not be afraid on their own street, not to have their homes burnt or their shops destroyed. They have a right not to be attacked. Lets be clear, we have seen a glimpse of the breakdown of society. We are fighting the idea that might is right. Civil liberties advocate must show we understand the need for tougher sanctions when they are genuinely needed to protect the public, or else we're just fanatics with no grasp of reality.
Cameron's most recent Downing Street statement also started to formulate a very simplistic political response to the rioting, associating it with lack of respect and predictably mentioning the welfare system. Any decent answer to what has happened to England this week will address issues like respect and family breakdown but only alongside a recognition of the roles of inequality and powerlessness in modern Britain.
That is another matter. We will get to that debate later, when things have calmed down. The immediate concern is about the operational response. So far, the signs are that the government has ignored the siren voices calling for a more draconian response while providing the freedom, resources and commitment to the police to stem the violence.
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