Whilst the focus now should be on restoring law and order, there are political implications to the riots which cannot be ignored.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

The last few days of rioting up and down the UK are unprecedented in recent times in terms of their scale and their impact. Politicians from all the major parties have been active across the media both condemning the violence and calling for calm. While many of them have been eager to stress that they're not trying to score political points from this, tempers have occasionally become frayed, as could be seen during the debate between Michael Gove and Harriet Harman on yesterday's Newsnight.

While the focus for the time being should rightly be on restoring law and order, there are political implications to the riots that cannot be ignored. In the short term there are questions over whether all the major political leaders in the country, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Boris Johnson, should have returned earlier from their respective holidays. In the longer term the riots are more problematic for David Cameron in particular, as they strike at two central elements of the Conservatives current platform: the 'big society' and the idea that the Conservatives are the party of law and order.

The 'big society' was a central plank in their election campaign back in 2010. It was partly a response to the economic crisis and partly born out of the neo-liberal fondness for the small state and the idea that local people are best at managing their own affairs rather than the government. More cynical commentators argued that it was actually a PR-friendly way of cutting government spending for social programmes. When the cuts were announced last year predictions were made about a summer of civil unrest in 2011 – although I don't think anyone had in mind the widespread looting and violence we've seen so far.

If the 'big society' is a product of modern politics then the idea that the Conservatives are the party of law and order has been ingrained in the national consciousness for decades, despite New Labour's attempts to challenge it by being even tougher. The cuts in policing announced last year were attacked at the time by members of all three parties as potentially leading to problems. There are a few certainties in British politics but one sure vote-winner has always been to promise more 'bobbies on the beat'.

Boris Johnson on the Today programme this morning said that he thought the government should reconsider the cuts. The Home Office was quick to rule this out, stating that police numbers were adequate to handle the current unrest. I find this problematic for several reasons. One is the assumption that the riots will not get more intense or spread to other areas of the UK. Both of these scenarios are still a possibility. Secondly there is the fact that the police are currently stretched as they are.

There are 16,000 police deployed at the moment to keep order in London. More will be in action tonight in cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham to try and keep a lid on things. While the police are able to make use of these kinds of numbers in the short term, it's doubtful whether this could be kept up for any long period of time without seriously harming police morale and efficiency. Already the tabloids, and commentators in some of the broadsheets, are calling for the cuts in police levels to be reversed and I suspect that most of the public currently agree with them. With Boris Johnson seemingly joining their number this could put an increasing amount of pressure on Cameron to perform yet another policy U-turn.

Of course it should be pointed out that these events could also be the making of the prime minister. A large section of the British public is currently angry and scared. If he can deliver reassurance and firm government, backed up with tangible results, then the political fallout might not be too bad. He is helped by the fact that Ed Miliband will be hard-pressed to make political capital of the riots. If he tries and gets it wrong he could be accused of playing politics with peoples' lives. Also, the social and economic factors that helped ferment this violence didn't just arise overnight: 13 years of New Labour government saw rising levels of inequality in many parts of the UK.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. He blogs at – http://drmatthewashton.com/

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