Wednesday, 10 August 2011

'Cat and Mouse' politics: encapsulating the riots

In reality it was quite easy to predict a riot, and in fact at least one group did!

You might consider that a bit of a fatuous levity, but it goes further than the superficial.

Let me explain.

These things are always just over the horizon so the more dispassionate among society will hold their breath until the smoke starts to clear and the potential reasons and causes can be examined more clearly.

Which thread you chose to emphasise depends on which side you butter your bread - some identify the alienation and resentment of an urban youth underclass exacerbated by economic policy, some claim it is a battle for social morality in which individuals recklessly choose the 'sheer criminality' of wanton actions such as looting and vandalism, whereas others describe a rising stampede of powerless individuals disinhibited by the crowd mentality and swept along on the exhilarating ride of the immediacy of the moment.

While a simmering discontent has long prevailed at the institutional relationships with life on the streets and decades of rising wealth has been accompanied by rising inequality, the recent legitimisation of protest culture has allowed the two to merge and give voice to a sense that sections of society are being left behind and scapegoated for it - repressed in order to be oppressed.

Add in to this the potency of social media technology where a newly apparent class divide between the open networks of facebook, twitter and flickr and the closed networks of rolling news broadcasts, official communications and BlackBerry messaging networks is driving the ability to control mass choices at an  instantaneous rate and we can see that almost all sponaneity and original thought is eradicated.

But if the on-going phone-hacking scandal has done anything to lift the lid on the murky and often dubious nature of connections between politicians, media, police and criminals then perhaps we would be less cynical if we applied these same lessons to the riots.

The two rules to bear in mind when evaluating potential players is to separate the coincidences from any conspiracy, and to ask 'who benefits?'

With regard to the political beneficiaries Cameron scores big by insisting commentators link the unrest and the communal resistance to it to his 'broken Britain' and 'Big Society' narratives, while Labour scores on a technicality simply by dint of being in opposition. Meanwhile Her Majesty's forces of Law and Order prove the invaluability of the services they provide - all the more urgent considering the risk to national confidence and reputation which would be caused by any disturbance to tarnish the prestige of the 2012 Olympics - right at the time when public service pay and pensions have have animated the debate over finances and in a far more forthright manner than any strike could.

As far as precise timing is concerned Parliament's summer recess is not known as 'silly season' for no reason  - with all 5 major relevant figures (Prime Minister, Deputy PM, Home Secretary, Mayor of London and Leader of the Opposition) all out of the country a dearth of news and leadership stories allows for media companies to concentrate greater resources, preferably closer to their doorsteps, and subjects of normally lesser significance suddenly attract more attention from us chattering amateurs at large among the wider public.

But most damning is the repeated underlying implication from a succession of heavy-handed hints scattered through reports. Many of the arrestees were already well-known to authorities, the gangs of rioters were divided into groups numbering around a hundred-or-so, directed by what seem to be organising capos, and that the pattern of activities were not only sufficiently profuse as to avoid concentrating either in any single location or on any single source of inspiration - but spreading.

Indeed, looking at a map of the incidents in combination with hearing education secretary Michael Gove MP talk on Newsnight and elsewhere about how the postcode rivalries between street gangs have been set aside to take advantage of the opportunity and the picture of rioting begins to bear the hallmarks of the traditional underworld 'manors' reacting to the call. Equally community residents have banded together to take the place of social protectors and some evidence of violence by the established criminals towards these groups develops the picture of gang warfare, and althought the description that 'the Police are the biggest gang in the country' is a flat comparison of manners it is only inaccurate insofar as the Police are backed by the legitimacy of the law.

As we know from the insights into COBRA arrangements, political leadership does not have operational control of ground units, and cannot leverage any statutory tools due to the oversight imposed by democratic accountability. By considered this model of power as the prime method of influencing the public policy debate for those in position in the trenches as it is for those behind the lines in government the crisis created by the rioting doesn't just look predictable, but wholly inevitable and actively desirable from the perspective of reasserting the legitimacy of authority.

What I'm trying to describe is no simple conspiracy, but a nexus of interests which knot themselves around events with increasing tensions until they can be 'nudged' by whomsoever has the imagination, the determination and the contacts to take a decisive lead on the issues.

We know the ongoing Operation Trident into the capital's gun crime has a focus out of the 'fortress' of  Tottenham High Road Police Station, we know that the victim of the Police shooting had a gun in his possession at the time and we know the vigil of rememberance was advertised to local politicians and media and that Police maintained a presence nearby having been warned that it could be used as a sparking point.

We also know Police tactics during the rioting were to contain the outbreaks of violence rather than to prevent it, and we know everyone from ordinary ranks to PCSOs were drafted in by Police leadership in a show of strength.

What we don't exactly know is who is the cat and who is the mouse.

And we don't yet know how to get the cat back in the bag at the end of it all.


As Gove argued, it would be wrong to draw connections between social class and criminality: criminals exist at all levels of society - although the type and scale of their crimes vary accordingly.

It seems a big debate is growing up about the causes of the riots. Let's hope those participating can show a bit more maturity than the norm, eh?


Chairman Bill said...

There have been riots? Where?

Oranjepan said...

Haha, yes Bill, exactly!

The level of focus given to a very small section of society is amazing, which perhaps reflects something about the disproportionate impact of the extemes on the majority and how the rest of us are able to find ways to deal with the same issues on a smaller scale.

When even the basic cost of keeping an offender in prison is ten times the average wage (and ignores the costs of processing an offence from policing through the courts to rehabilitation, clear-up and the wider economic impact) there is a big argument still to be confronted about the effectiveness and cost of a range of policies overlooking the damage to human dignity of those individuals who go on to cause problems.

Relationship breakdown (communication, engagement and too many of those fluff-filled words in place of meaningful actions) in families, as in all social interactions, has major repurcussions. Crime and policing are the consequence of a lack of justice between people.

The attitude which says 'lock em up and throw away the key' must be confronted and overturned. The key is to open up society and thereby expel our demons.