Antisocial behaviour, Britain, Crime, David Cameron, Drugs, London Riots 2011, Police, Theresa May

The war of the flea: the riots and our government’s response.


We must be cautious in how we respond to the riots

Listening to Theresa May’s proposal that the police should be provided with powers to implement a curfew across an area in the case of civil disobedience brought to mind an extract from Robert Taber’s excellent The War of The Flea. Taber’s argues that in response to terrorism, sabotage and insurrection in a guerrilla war “it will be a remarkable government that will not be driven to stern repressive measures – curfews, the suspension of civil liberties, a ban on popular assembly, illegal acts that can only deepen popular opposition, creating a vicious circle of rebellion and repression”. Obviously the recent riots should not be grouped with a popular insurrection but in tackling their causes and how to prevent them in the future we must ensure we avoid Taber’s vicious circle.

There can be no doubt that those involved in the worst acts of criminality during the rioting and looting deserve to feel the full force of the law and receive exemplary sentences where necessary. However, does someone of previously good character who slept through the riots but was foolish enough to accept a pair of short given to them by their roommate the day after deserve to be imprisoned for six months? This individual will not only have to contend with a prison sentence where she is exposed to the worst aspects of our society but will also lose any realistic prospect of securing work. The same question can be asked of the boy who took a bottle of water worth a pound from Lidl during the riots. Are these crimes?

Of course, but are they crimes meriting such harsh punishment as imprisonment. These sentences will only exasperate the problems within our society. Will the young woman who has been imprisoned for receiving stolen goods believe in the fairness of the British judicial system? Will her family? Will they become more integrated in our society in the future becoming productive hardworking individuals who make a contribution or will they drift further out of mainstream society, along with a growing number who have little opportunities in life other than milking the benefit system?

Unfortunately Cameron and May seem willing to gamble on the headlines of the day and risk the opprobrium of history. Those caught of relatively minimal criminal offences when compared to many involved in the riots are being excessively punished which will only exasperate the problems at the bottom of society. Worst of all those involved in the heart of the violence and disorder in London are likely to escape punishment as they weren’t so foolish as to go looting without covering their faces and disguising the means to establish their identity.  Much of the rioting which occurred was led by a core of like-minded individuals who started violence, waited for the flames of disorder to catch and then withdrew when the police arrived in force, only to emerge elsewhere to cause more violence and disruption.

Overlay the points of major rioting in London with a transport map and you will notice all are major transport hubs. This isn’t an irrelevant coincidence. It is because a group, or groups, of people decided to spread as much violence and destruction as possible and chose areas where they could easily converge and more importantly where there were numerous avenues of escape when the police arrived in force.  The same individuals who descended into Tottenham on the first night of disorder to exploit and hijack the initial disorder in order to produce far greater levels of chaos and destruction were at work the next night when they caused violence from one end of the Victoria line to the other. If we accept that the riots were organised by the BlackBerry BBM messaging network we see that the riots were not spontaneous out letting of built up frustrations in society but something more disturbing in a minority of people within our society which we risk spreading if we react in a draconian manner.

Rather than introduce a wave of panic legislation which will look tough but achieve little other than the erosion of the civil liberties of the law-abiding majority the government needs to evaluate calmly and coherently what is needed to prevent similar disorder in the future.

Firstly the government should introduce an updated riot act. This act would have to provide the police with lower obligations in their use of force when dispersing groups of malcontents.  If the police had had a mechanism where they could have temporarily ensured that large groups gathering in localised areas would have had no recourse to legal action if they remained and were injured in the course of the police doing their duty the violence would have been far less contagious. The police didn’t need 16,000 officers to cope with the disorder they needed to be able to rapidly disperse groups who were causing trouble and destruction to property.

Having watched the police operations throughout the riots it is clear that in areas where they took early action to prevent and disperse groups which had gathered from causing trouble, such as in Battersea and Putney, they were able to prevent significant damage. Where they seeded control of areas to groups often numbering less than their own numbers, destruction spread and people not initially involved were caught up and the looting spread, this was perhaps most clearly seen in Brixton and Clapham. Importantly, any legislation in this regard would have to ensure it could not be used against peaceful protests or strikers and that the proclamation would have to be approved by government as well as local police officers.

Blaming gangs for violence is a cheap and easy option for the government. Listening to the news recently in relation to gangs in London anyone living outside of the capital might think these gangs control the streets. They don’t. The problem is in no way comparable to the problems in L.A. or New York. In certain estates in London gangs have a significant influence in terms of drugs and gun crime. But they do not interfere with the day-to-day life of residents. Certainly this is a problem but it does not deserve the emphasis that Cameron, himself an ex-gang member, is ascribing to it.

The Metropolitan Police strategies of the past decade deserve recognition in that they have succeeded in reducing street crime to extremely low levels, in some areas tension with the Met remains high but the progress made has been considerable.  Blaming certain cultures does not make a great deal of sense either. The violence in London and the later violence in Birmingham and Manchester do not share similar cultural ties. There was no violence in Scotland and the North-East of England not because of the ethnic or cultural makeup of residents but because it was pouring with rain at the time. What initially appears an easy fit when looking at London makes little sense when really investigated or when applied to the violence in the rest of the country.

The question of how to tackle that group of society which has been left marginalised is not an easy one. Improving education is of course important. Many of those involved have left the school system with poor qualifications. For some this will have been a product of their own failures to work hard but for too many it will be the result of inadequate teaching at schools which have failed in their responsibilities. However, the education system has been massively improved in the last decade with large amounts of investment providing teachers, equipment and infrastructure. In this area we have already made inroads but cuts to schemes such as reading recovery do not help reverse the trend seen in poorer areas where children often enter school not having received the early support necessary or who are not encouraged to learn when at home.

The trend of pride some have in regard to their poor numeracy skills most be tackled. However, whilst education is important it should be remembered that aspects of our society have always received poor schooling. What has changed is that jobs which require lower academic standards, ranging from manufacture to road sweeping have either disappeared or are no longer available as they are often filled by individuals born outside of the UK. In place of these jobs we have provided a benefits system which often disincentives people to go out and look for work.

A benefit system which will reward those who are in no position to provide for a family when they choose to have a large family and often encourages them to do so; If you are a single mum out of work one child is enough to get you a flat of your own paid for by the state, three children is enough to get you a house. However, it is not the benefit system which has created a society where some people do not connect or care about their community. We revel in a materialistic society which promotes celebrity over achievement, where hard work is ignored and discredited and get quick rich schemes are accepted by all. Solving these problems will be no easy task and we deserve far better from this government than having them trot out bland and hollow promises in front psychedelically coloured graffiti. Ultimately these problems go back several generations, they have not just recently emerged, and if we fail to tackle them now we risk adding another layer of failed individuals into the equation.

About Harry Raffal

Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum. Currently preparing for the viva defence of my PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 (University of Hull). Other areas of research include: The online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces. 2014 — Institute for Historical Research research bursary for ‘Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities’ project. 2018 — published in a special issue of Internet Histories. The force structure and capabilities of the Eritrean Air Force Internet deterrence: How to counter the weaponization of information online These research projects have formed the content of several papers including lectures to the Royal Aeronautical Society, as part of the RAF Museums Trenchard lecture series, and the 2017 Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials (RESAW) conference. This research has been funded through bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the 2014 Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities research grant, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull, the Sir Richard Stapley Trust and the RAF Museum PhD bursary. Placed in Total Politics 2011 top 100 non-aligned political bloggers


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