I first became aware of the recent riots courtesy of Fox News, while I was in New Orleans. They spoke of cars and buses burning in “Tott-ing-ham, London”. Back home yesterday morning, having seen TV coverage of the previous night’s mayhem, I Tweeted: “Memo to COBRA: Time to get tough. Bring in the Army. Shoot looters and arsonists on sight”.
This was not, of course, a practical policy prescription — more a howl of protest on behalf of all those decent law-abiding citizens who, like me, were shocked and outraged by what they’d seen. In fact I’ve seen nothing of this first-hand — thanks heaven the troubles have not reached rural Leicestershire — but nonetheless because of the Tweet, the media decided that I must be a pundit on the issue, and I have been besieged by media bids, though I only accepted local media and Radio 5 Live.
Inevitably, as usual, Central Office “dissociated itself from Mr. Helmer’s views”. The great thing about being a humble back-bencher is that one is free to use robust and colourful language which would give Central Office apparatchiks the collywobbles.
Almost as shocking as the riots are the opportunist attempts by various left-wingers to blame the government and “the cuts” for the violence. In practical terms, of course, few of “the cuts” have so far been implemented. But in any case, the blame attaches clearly and solely to the feral youths, the low-life sewer-rats who were smashing and grabbing and looting and burning, with a wholesale disregard for life and property. It is fair to ask questions about police strategy and readiness, and about underlying social factors that have created an alienated under-class, but the blame for nights of carnage lies solely and squarely with the perpetrators.
Predictably, the BBC repeatedly described these thugs and hooligans as “protesters”. They were no such thing. They were simply criminals. They had no legitimate cause. They had no demands, no programme. They were motivated by greed, nihilism and sheer devilment. This gives the lie to those who have tried to compare the suppression of riots in the UK with events in Libya and Syria. Those countries sadly have oppressive authoritarian régimes. We, fortunately, have democracy, and we voted in the present government only fourteen months ago. There could be no legitimacy for violent street protests, even if they had a legitimate cause.
Lord Harris says that these young people need jobs. Maybe so, but what employer in his right mind would offer them one? Who would employ these inarticulate, nihilistic, mindless young people, totally lacking in any vestige of moral sense or respect?
On police tactics, I recognise that the police were as surprised as everyone else by the scale of the riots, and I respect the courage and sheer hard graft of many officers. But I do have the sense that the Met were playing catch-up for too long, that they have too many senior officers with sociology degrees who are more concerned with building bridges, respecting minorities, and promoting community relations, than they are with protecting life and property and keeping the peace on our streets. They see themselves as a Police Service rather than a Police Force.
The copy-cat rioters in Manchester and Birmingham and elsewhere did it primarily because they thought they could get away with it, because they’d seen the initially low-key response in London. We all saw young people queuing outside broken shop windows for their turn to grab the telephones, TVs and trainers, with no police officers in sight, or sometimes two or three officers standing by impotently, in the face of dozens or hundreds of rioters. In other cities they thought they’d also load up on brand-name consumer products and bling, and they calculated that they could get away with it scot free.
On social issues, there are many underlying causes that could be adduced. Simon Heffer says we have an underclass because we have decided to pay for one. We have family breakdown, the lack of male role-models and authority figures, the growth of moral relativism and the decline of religion. We have insolent and nihilistic “rap” lyrics inciting violence. In education we have the undermining of discipline by trendy, “progressive” educational theories, and teachers lacking any credible sanctions against bad behaviour, and we have a significant proportion of school leavers functionally illiterate and innumerate (as Carol Vorderman recently pointed out).
It is gratifying that the Coalition is addressing many of these issues (Michael Gove on education; Iain Duncan-Smith on welfare and family issues, for example), but it’s a long-term project.
Is there any silver lining? It was good to see London residents turning out with brooms to clean up, and in some cases law-abiding citizens on the streets to protect their property and neighbourhoods. No one wants vigilantism, but if the police have clearly demonstrated an inability to protect life and property, we can hardly blame citizens for filling the gap.
And I was pleased to see in the press at least one parent of a young looter expressing her own outrage. We need law-abiding middle-aged parents to turn in their youngsters who come home with obviously looted stuff. The police, after a slow start, have now made many hundreds of arrests. They also say they’ll be rigorous in following up the numerous leads from photographs, security camera footage, and even from the FaceBook postings of foolish youngsters who have paraded themselves with their loot. All these young criminals must be given credible custodial sentences. ASBOs and community service orders will not do — though I’m not sure where Ken Clarke will find all the prison accommodation.