What Lessons Have The Riots Taught Us?

Posted: August 16, 2011 in Politics
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On Monday 8th August, I (like many others across the country) watched in horror as the citizens of this country turned on it, and bit hard. I watched as young people of all types set fire to a car and pushed it into a wall. I watched the police standing back, not wanting to let the rioters and looters have their way, but unable to make a stand against them. I was amongst those who called for David Cameron to stop tipping Italian waitresses and come back to England to try and sort this mess out.

In the aftermath, I kind of wished he’d stayed on holiday and let someone else take charge.

It took a third night of rioting, the worst night, to force Cameron to abandon his holiday and return to chair a meeting of COBRA. Over those nights of rioting, the call came from the supposedly moderate people who weren’t out rioting to send the army in, to fire the water cannon at these “vermin”, to enforce shoot to kill rules. Moderation went out of the window during that week. The thing that struck me as ironic is that the exact same people who were calling for this treatment were the exact same people who denounced countries like Libya, Syria, Bahrain and China for taking those measures against their own citizens. I would have pointed that out to them but I fear the irony would have been lost on them.

With the return of Cameron (luckily just in time to say lots of things but too late to have any effect on the riots), we suddenly saw thousands more police on the streets of London. I’m sure Cameron would like us to believe it was all his doing, however I believe those numbers would have been arranged whilst the rioting on Monday night was ongoing and it became clear that they just didn’t have enough to deal with the situation. So Cameron came back, and said lots of things about everything at once and nothing in particular, and managed to annoy both the police and the general public with his lambasting of the way police handled the rioting.

Once again, in a matter of urgency for this country, Cameron has been caught on the back foot. He failed to get the public mood over the phone hacking scandal, he failed to get the mood over the NHS plans, he failed to get the mood over plans to sell acres of forests to private buyers. And he again failed to get the mood over how best to deal with the aftermath of these riots. Ed Miliband struck the right notes, calling for a major public inquiry into the causes and threatening to set that inquiry up himself if No.10 failed to acquiesce. For a weak Labour leader, these past few months have been nothing but strengthening both for his political image and for his self-confidence. He has been able to push Cameron into retreats on several occasions and, right now, looks more like the leader of this country than David Cameron. Although having said that, it is much easier to be asking the questions than it is to be answering them.

Today, both Cameron and Miliband made speeches about the situation the country finds itself in, and both leaders came out of their speeches looking like different people; Cameron came out looking much more like an old-fashioned right-wing Conservative rather than the liberal image he portrayed during his days in opposition; Ed came out looking like he had won the battle – he had said the right things, answered questions from young people properly and fairly, and acknowledged that whilst Labour had tried to make things better for the poorer people of the country, that it hadn’t been able to do so. In saying that, he has effectively stopped Cameron using that as a method of political attack. Miliband also very cleverly did not link the rioting to problems caused by current or previous administrations, unlike Louise Mensch who firmly believes that everything that is wrong with this country right now is the fault of Labour (“All social justice, and all progressive goals, depend upon Osborne steering us out of Labour’s disastrous mess”).

Both leaders were displaying roughly the same messages in their speeches, about the role that society as a whole had to play in solving these problems, yet it was hard to see past David Cameron’s rhetoric about policing, funding and numbers and his conclusions about the rioting and how to deal with them, which sound confused against his party’s plans for office. Ed Miliband scored a major one-up by quoting one of the Prime Minister’s earliest speeches as leader of the Conservatives:

Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime – just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow.

Individuals are responsible for their actions – and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour.

Cameron, notedly, did not mention unemployment levels amongst young people. He did, however, mention Health and Safety laws and the Human Rights act. He makes it very clear that right now, he does not feel that poverty is a cause for the rioting. And whilst he may be slightly right over that, he has failed to recognise that there is not one single cause, and there is not one single answer. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, that all the possible causes mentioned by both sides need to be remedied. This needs to be done, for a start, by listening to those people who were affected by, and involved in, the riots. As Ed Miliband stated, to seek to explain is not to seek to excuse. Trying to understand why the riots happened does not mean we are giving amnesty to those who were involved. Understanding is the key, and should be the goal of all parties.

David Cameron’s measures, such as helping 120,000 of the country’s most troubled families, monitoring social networking sites, having plastic bullets and water cannon on standby, calling in a US “super-cop” to help and advise on riots (hang on, I thought the US looked to us for advice on crowd control…), have the feeling of nothing more than a sticking plaster. Covering up the wound in the faint hope it will heal itself. And this seems to be a recurring theme of this Prime Minister’s leadership. Not once have the Conservative Party at the heart of this Government looked to gain understanding about why things need to be done – in their minds, it’s all got to be done because Labour screwed everything up.

It’s time for a new message: Wake up, David, and smell the coffee. Britain is not broken, but it needs more than just lip-service.


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