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Andy McSmith: Any politically embarrassing findings can just be ignored


The last time a government faced riots on the British mainland as widespread as last week's was in the summer of 1981, when trouble began in Brixton and spread to almost every major city in England.

Then there were arguments like those we are hearing now. Margaret Thatcher refused to countenance any suggestion that the disorder could be explained or excused by social factors such as rising unemployment.

Yet, even under her disapproving eye, very senior figures, including the High Court judge Lord Scarman and a dissenting member of Mrs Thatcher's cabinet, Michael Heseltine, engaged directly with those who had either rioted or who knew people who had rioted to find out why.

This time there are no plans for any high-level contact between the Government and anyone who rioted or who is in a position to explain the mentality of those who rioted. That task is to be delegated to paid researchers who can be expected to carry out their job with a minimum of publicity.

Government sources defend this approach by emphasising that 2011 is not 1981. Thirty years ago, whole communities mistrusted the police. They had recognisable community leaders who could speak for them. But there are no community leaders now who can speak on behalf of people who loot and burn.

Perhaps. On the other hand, people of the stature of Heseltine or Lord Scarman were difficult to ignore. When the researchers hand in their report, however, ministers will have a choice. If the findings chime with what the Government wants to do, they can be adopted. But if they are politically embarrassing, they can be dropped.Very convenient.