I have thus far resisted the temptation to rant about the riots and the response of both politicians and the press. As a Londoner by birth I was deeply depressed at the site of many of my old North and East London haunts going up in smoke and falling victim to looters and vandals. Then it spread. Lives lost, livelihoods in tatters and violence erupting in cities as large as Manchester and as small as Gloucester. I became lost in a confusion of conflicting reactions levelled at the perpetrators of the crimes, the press coverage and at politicians.
But I found it hard to condemn the police. At times it seemed as if in their anger people were suggesting the men and women of the Met police were sitting back toasting marshmallows over the flames destroying people’s homes and businesses. Where were they? Why didn’t they wade in and do exactly what we criticised them for in the wake of the student riots and other recent protests?
Sir Robert Peel, who first established the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829 may or may not (there is a little doubt over whether 20th century historians put words into his mouth) have laid down what became known as the ‘Peelian Principles’, the ethical requirements police officers must follow in order to be effective.
“the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions”
“(the police) must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”
Following the riots of the late 1970’s and early ‘80s and the use of the police as ‘bully boys’ by Margaret Thatcher to pursue her ideological hatred of the Unions, Forces across Britain have struggled to regain some measure of control in areas of towns and cities where that miserable Thatcher aphorism ‘there is no such thing as society’ was becoming increasingly evident. They made mistakes; they were occasionally corrupt and far too close to politics for comfort but over the past week community leaders have come out to say that many good police officers are genuinely working on fostering the mutual respect Robert Peel recognised as vital for effective policing.
This is why I feel far more anger at David Cameron, watching events unfold in Tuscany before reluctantly coming to the conclusion he ought to show some sort of leadership and return. So with others of his tribe of well-heeled men and women, he came back, tanned and puffed up to support community leaders and local people living in fear and desperately trying to keep a measure of control in their constituencies. The blame was placed squarely with the police. We got extra numbers on the streets, as if by magic, along with platitudes and quick fix solutions. We had mass arrests of not only hardened criminals but stupid children and young people, out of control, caught up in a mob mentality who have now been dragged before the courts, their young lives blighted further by a criminal record and time in prison to learn how to nick things and get away with it next time.
So what next? Things are returning to some sort of normality in a society that is, according to the PM, in terminal moral decline; broken by family breakdown (despite the fact that many wealthy single parent families do not seem to have the same stigma attached to their struggles to cope); suffering from a sickness that, it appears, the masses have brought on themselves; by wanting the sort of material wealth enjoyed by those that decide whether they will have a job next week, next month or ever.
I am no apologist for horrors we saw on our screens last week but for me it appears to be the 21st century version of drinking water from the filthy pump at the end of your poverty stricken 19th century street. A very bad idea, but if it is the only way to get what others take for granted, why are we surprised when an epidemic starts?
OK – old news, but relevant - MPs ‘stole’ plasma televisions via fiddling their expenses. Slapped wrists for most, the political wilderness for some and jail for a very few after long winded and undoubtedly expensive enquiries and trials. Similarly, bankers have wreaked havoc on the pension pots of ordinary folk whilst walking away with theirs intact, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds and still paid themselves huge bonuses.
But kids from the streets of Hackney, Tottenham, Enfield and Ealing are picked up, along with, homeless people and people with mental health issues within 24 hours, put before magistrates and held in custody because they saw the opportunity to grab a bag of perfume from Debenhams. It is worrying that they care so little for authority; horrible to compare the behaviour with that even of thirty years ago when I was in my teens. But surprising? It really shouldn’t be.
So now we are talking of ‘zero tolerance’, an American model that just doesn’t work. It sits well with the righteous anger many people are feeling right now – the anger that has sent calls for National Service through the roof despite the number of ex-service personnel in prison or needing psychiatric care. Police should carry guns perhaps, in order to show the gang leaders ruining the lives of many communities who exactly is ‘boss’. It is a nonsense. How will that create a more egalitarian society?
Of course David Cameron may mean he will not tolerate further vandalism, looting and violence. If that is what he means by ‘zero tolerance’ who could argue against him? But with Home Secretary Theresa May saying that the police need to know what WE expect of them at a time like this, it suggests a response that will rely more on a simplistic hard line response than a considered long-term solution.
If we can support police to go back to those ‘Peelian Principles’, fund them and fund communities to work with them, perhaps we can really turn the lives of a ‘lost’ generation around.