Leading article: The Prime Minister's draconian gimmicks

The call for wider curfew powers is straight off the autocrat's traditional wish list

Friday 12 August 2011 00:00

The authoritarian knee has jerked once again. In the aftermath of the London terrorist bombings of 2005, Tony Blair announced that "the rules of the game" had changed and went on to unveil an extensive list of emergency measures that were as draconian as they were impractical. In the wake of this week's urban riots, David Cameron has blundered in a depressingly familiar way. Stung by criticism of his Government's initial fumbling response to the disturbances across the UK, the Prime Minister hastily unveiled a series of proposals to Parliament yesterday that are as illiberal and ill-advised as anything that Mr Blair ever came up with.

The most egregious suggestion from Mr Cameron is that the Government will look in to disrupting social media where there are suspicions that these forums are being used to encourage or facilitate criminal behaviour. That is the sort of thing that has been attempted by Middle Eastern autocracies in the face of revolts from their own oppressed populations. It is embarrassing that our own Prime Minister should be contemplating dragging Britain down that particular dead-end street. Mr Cameron is also making a massive error if he imagines that these riots would not have happened without BlackBerrys and Twitter.

The Prime Minister's call for wider curfew powers is another suggestion straight off the autocrat's traditional wish list. And just as worrying is the proposal to extend the use of "gang injunctions", which can be used to restrict an individual's freedom of movement. All of this, combined with Mr Cameron's approval for the use of water cannon and baton rounds (in spite of police advice that these crowd-control techniques would be disproportionate and ineffective), paints an unpleasant picture of a Prime Minister who is prepared to jettison all concern for civil liberties at the first whiff of smoke. Perhaps the only surprise is that Mr Cameron was not more receptive to Sir Peter Tapsell's call in Parliament yesterday for Wembley Stadium to be used as a holding pen for rioters.

Other aspects of Mr Cameron's response are likely to prove impractical. The Prime Minister wants to widen the powers of local authorities to evict rioters from their council homes. But since many local authorities have a legal duty to house families in need, this is of limited practical purpose. While it is possible to understand the deterrent intention, the fact is that this would simply shift a problem, rather than address it.

Mr Cameron's pledge to allow the police to force people to remove face coverings if they suspect criminal activity is afoot also smacks of displacement activity. It is argued that people who cover their faces can avoid detection through CCTV after they have committed a crime. But if people are smashing windows, looting shops and burning down buildings they should be arrested before they can escape the scene. The problem is not one of clothing, but behaviour.

Some of the Prime Minister's other ideas shade into the territory of the ridiculous, such as his call for the planning laws to be reformed so shops can more easily set up protective shutters. Can it really be true that petty regulations are deterring shopkeepers around the country from protecting their properties?

We should be clear about what measures worked in protecting the public this week and what was lacking. What ended the anarchy on the streets of London was a hugely expanded police presence. The prime failure was in the tardiness of the Metropolitan Police in calling up reinforcements. There were tactical mistakes too, with officers instructed to treat the disturbances as a public order challenge, rather than to focus on arresting looters. The idea that the Prime Minister's proposed reforms would have made any difference – or would do so in future – is fanciful.

The reform that is really needed is one that goes to the root social causes of the disturbances. David Cameron told the Commons yesterday that the riots were not about poverty, but about culture. Yet this is too simplistic. Though much comment has been generated by the fact that a university student and a privately educated schoolgirl are among those who have been caught looting, these individuals are hardly representative of the broad mass of those involved in this shocking behaviour. The vast majority of the pillagers were from a socially excluded underclass that does not respect the normal rules of society. Deprivation and economic marginalisation are certainly not an excuse for their conduct or attitudes. But to ignore these factors in delivering the sort of anarchy we have seen in recent days is to be wilfully blind.

Our parliamentarians did a good job yesterday in reflecting the public's general mood. There was unambiguous condemnation for the rioters and heartfelt sympathy for those around the country who have suffered in the mayhem. But what was needed was something more than an emotional connection with the public. What was needed was an attempt to focus on the underlying causes of this terrifying breakdown in law and order.

There was a time when Mr Cameron was willing to do this. In 2006, as opposition leader, he spoke eloquently about the need to adopt a new approach to integrating a marginalised underclass into normal society. Talking of the sort of low-level antisocial behaviour that escalated so horrifically into this week's orgy of vandalism and looting, Mr Cameron argued that "we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong". Yet now, sadly, the Prime Minister seems to be more interested in draconian gimmicks than understanding what has gone so dreadfully wrong.

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