Adrian Hamilton: Never mind leadership – this is all about branding


Adrian Hamilton
Saturday 13 August 2011 00:00

This was billed as David Cameron's most testing week in his premiership.

It might have been had the riots gone on uncontrolled in time or place. But they haven't and the argument has become not who was to blame but who was to take the credit for their quelling.

The police, having been roundly abused for failing to take control in the first couple of nights, have been determined to show that they and they alone were the deliverers of safety and security in the end. The politicians, the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, recalled early from their holidays, were just as determined to show that it was their timely intervention which saved the day.

It's a pretty unseemly sight. It's not even certain that police action did quell it. There was much about these riots that was a one-off. Once people had got trainers and a free TV, they weren't necessarily (and, one hopes, won't be) in a mood to go back for more.

But then this is the nature of the political game and it is a game which Cameron knows how to play. He has learned from Tony Blair, and from his own background in public relations, that politics is the art of tone and of branding, not of policy and effectiveness.

Prolonged rioting, a police force that was still struggling to take back control of the streets would have tested him as a commander. Now, at least for the moment, he must be breathing a sight of relief.

For, at this stage, the mood of the public and the interest of politics is not in causes or solutions. It remains dominated by fear – the fear that rioters and looters could suddenly erupt to take over the streets. Why the rioters do it is neither here nor there. What can be done to stop them is what matters. The Prime Minister's harping on the criminality of the looters may be unconstructive but it reflects the feeling of the majority.

His weakness in this debate is the poor relations of his Government with the police. Normally a Tory administration would be shoulder to shoulder with the voices of law and order. Thanks to job cuts, the ramifications of the Murdoch scandal and now the upset at initial failures, the Government is at odds with the men in blue – a fact which the Opposition, which is normally on the other side, has not been slow to take advantage of.

The Opposition's weakness, on the other hand, is that it cannot go on too much about the cuts and the failings of society, firstly because the voter doesn't want to hear "excuses for law-breakers", and secondly because it was only recently in government itself for over a decade in which the deeper ills of social exclusion should have been addressed.

Which has all made for a disappointing week so far as open debate and learned lessons are concerned, never mind the rise and fall of political reputations. For the fact is that the rioting, "feral", "gang-driven" or simply "criminal", has highlighted a gap between rich and poor that has widened, and a marginalisation of the poorest which has grown worse over the last decades. It's not as though people haven't warned about it. It isn't as if those who live near sink estates or lawless town centres don't know about it. It's simply that events have never forced politicians to take action on it.

The danger now is that the Government, and even Opposition members, will simply take the crisis as a threat to law and order and turn away from it as soon as they think it's over. That is the tone of Cameron's rhetoric. He may prove right in terms of practical power. Put enough force into the problem and it can be pushed to the sidelines, enveloped in a fog of words about society, parenting, responsibilities and community. But, if he really means what he says in justifying cuts: that it is wrong to burden future generations with the carelessness of today's, then he needs to look at what these riots tell us about society and the obligations of government for the future.

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