Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Riots and responsibility

[Trigger warning: violence, also applies to most of the links]

So, riots. Some other reading on the subject first:

And for some idea of the general public response:

  • This rapidly-growing petition to remove all benefits from rioters (presumably after they've been released from jail) is by far the most signed petition on the government's new petitions site.
  • YouGov polling reports significant majorities in favour of major escalations of force against the riots, and 33% in favour of the use of live ammunition.

My own thoughts...

There are two things that the government needs to do. Immediately, it needs to restore an approximation of order to the affected cities. The people involved in the riots do need to be arrested and tried if possible. The government are taking this - after a shaky start - pretty seriously1, with a large police presence in city centres at night, and rapid work to arrest the rioters during the day. The rioting isn't going to be completely over for a while - but provided nothing escalates it (see footnote1 again) then normality should return fairly soon.

As soon as that is done, however, the government needs to do a much more important task - stop this happening again.

Riots could in theory break out at any time. There are nowhere near enough police across the country to stop this. If thousands of people decide at the same time that they want to make a point through violence, it's really difficult for the police to stop this happening.

Generally, they don't, however. Most of the time, people feel they have better choices available to them, or don't co-ordinate their attempts to riot.

The police can maintain a strong presence enough to stop these riots. They cannot maintain that presence indefinitely - already officers have been on duty for much longer than they should have been. Eventually they will need to stand down - and then, if nothing has changed, it will only be one more spark needed for more riots to start.

Unfortunately, the government seems to be determined not to change anything.

Its all too clear that we have a big problem with gangs in our country. For too long there has been a lack of focus and a complete lack of respect shown by these groups of thugs.

I am clear that they are in no way representative of the vast majority of young people in our country who despise them frankly as much as the rest of us do. But there are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick.

When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.

For me the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing I have spoken about for years: it is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society.

People allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences. Well they do have consequences.

We need to have a clearer code of values and standards that we expect people to live by and stronger penalties if they cross the line. Restoring a stronger sense of responsibility across our society in every town in every street in ever estate is something I am determined to do.

That's David Cameron PM (Conservative) there. But with all that talk about how people should "take responsibility", it could easily have been his Opposition counterpart, Ed Miliband MP (Labour). As the Guardian reports:

He said: "Then we have got to look into the causes, why people are going around doing this. And I think there are a complex number of causes."

He said he thought it was "partly about parental responsibility, partly about gangs and some of that culture".

Pretty similar thoughts from both. In summary, the causes of the riots are that "the rioters are scum, and their parents are scum, and their culture is scum, and we should punish the lot of them".

And with that level of shallow political analysis and responsibility-dodging from our political leadership, there are always going to be people who feel that society is giving them nothing.

Today's rioters can be dealt with. Arrested. Tried. Imprisoned. Tomorrow's rioters are still going to grow up in the same hopeless situations, being blamed by the politicians for being in those situations. And in a few years we'll arrest them too, because that's far easier than trying to figure out what the real underlying problems are and then fixing them. Far easier than treating people as actual people and listening to them and taking them seriously before they get so desperate they take to the streets to loot and destroy because that's all that's left. But no. They're scum, their families are scum, and they deserve what they get. Political consensus acheived, Parliament adjourned.

I think tomorrow's Parliamentary debate will be very reluctant to look "soft on crime" and consider why these riots might be happening. Why decades of social deprivation and institutional racism and cuts to what few bits of social safety net there were might be giving people nothing left to lose by rioting. I hope I'm wrong about that, but if I am it'll have to come from the backbenches.


1 Populist but dangerous and largely useless measures such as water cannon and plastic bullets aside, that is. Because they worked so well in Northern Ireland.