This summer has been an unusual one for Britons, says Zachary Barker. In the final of our riots series, he talks about the policy responses of the main party leaders.
First and foremost the country experienced sudden outbreaks of rioting in many of the country’s major cities. More surprisingly the leaders of the three major parties in the UK abandoned point scoring at the expense of each other, for the duration of the worst of the violence. Then barely after the fires were put out, it was business as usual.
Throughout the worst of the violence all parties (including those of the Coalition Government) called definitively for order to be restored. Speaking in Peckham on 9th August Ed Miliband said “There can be no excuses for the violence, the intimidation of people. That can never be excused, that can never be justified. That is why the immediate priority is to restore public order and public safety”. Aside from a few comments about the government protecting people’s property, criticism of the government was kept to a minimum.
The Labour Leader’s conciliatory approach did not last long. On the 15th August he spoke of his distaste at the government’s “knee-jerk gimmicks rushed out without real thought”. This covers his view of the government’s expansion of riot training, the tough sentencing of rioters, the authorisation of the use of new crowd control tools for the police and Cameron’s initiative to channel public funding towards some of the UK’s poorest families. To explain why so many young people took part in the riots Ed Miliband highlighted societal factors such as greedy bankers, expenses fixing MPs and phone hacking journalists. These were all blamed for increasing resentment among young people.
Ed Miliband’s statements outlined above may have an element of truth about them. Many of the measures Prime Minister David Cameron put through to aid the police were arguably not helpful to restoring order. For instance police sources have pointed out that fairly atypical to average riot outbreaks, gangs of assailants in this instance tended to move in small packs of four at most, as oppose to larger mobs more typical of riots. Because of this the unwieldy Water Cannons have limited usefulness in hitting their mark without causing collateral damage. So called baton round bullets travel approximately at the twice the speed of a well thrown cricket ball. Consequently these types of bullets can often be dodged by targeted parties, possibly leading to innocent bystanders being injured. Since these measures have been authorised there are very few instances of the police actually using these weapons to quell the riots.
It could be argued that stronger communication between the police leadership and Number 10 could have ensured the implementation of measures more useful to the police. Or was this a PR move by Number 10 to send a message to the public and the rioters about how willing the government was to raise the stakes? While both points have merit it is possible that Number 10 practised a bit of selective hearing while communicating with the police. The police have an interest in seeing the cuts to their service curtailed, and they are not alone in their protestations. Cameron is allegedly at odds with Boris Johnson over the potentially detrimental cuts planned on police numbers within London. Certainly PR was on Cameron’s mind with his consistently defiant message of maintaining order throughout the riots. He also consistently displayed an approving attitude at the courts running overtime and giving out consistently harsh sentences. I believe here Cameron may have opened himself up to a charge of hypocrisy.
A few months ago Cameron made much of his disapproval towards the rise of so called ‘super injunction’ media censuring court orders issued to protect certain high profile figures from media harassment. Cameron argued that it was the job of Parliament to decide laws, and the judges to interpret them and not create them. Many court judges have issued tougher than average sentences for offences to rioters. They argue is that the offences occurred at the time of an uproar of violent behaviour, by implication making other people’s actions influence an accused person’s sentence. I for one believe this is a very disturbing trend.
I believe David Cameron, Ed Miliband and even Nick Clegg are putting political motives before finding pragmatic solutions that this country urgently needs. David Cameron arguably has an interest in appeasing coalition-sceptic Tory backbenchers with a tough law and order approach. Ed Miliband is hardly credible citing societal factors that allegedly caused the riots, having been in a government that had 13 years to take action on any of them. There are credible reports that Nick Clegg was involved in arson in his youth, and avoided prosecution. Overall I believe the people of the UK will unlikely to have the sensible and balanced debate it deserves from its elected representatives.