Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London at a crossroads

Home Secretary Theresa May made an almost throwaway comment on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning - that we have a tradition in this country of “policing by consent”.

To a large extent this is true. Our policing may have failed in many ways. But we have also avoided some of the heavier-handed and undesirable approaches evident in many countries around the world.

But we are now at a crossroads in London (and other parts of the country). The police were outnumbered and outmanoevered during the events of last night. So this can go one of two ways. There is talk this morning of the use of curfews, the army, watercannon and even rubber bullets. If these kinds of tactics are employed on a large scale, in the long run it will be hard to go back. It will likely end with more powers for the police, which it has been suggested have been part of the problem, not the solution. And it will further weaken the “policing by consent” approach, reinforcing the "us" and "them" divide.

Another way forward, and one far more in keeping with the British tradition of policing, is to use community power. We are already seeing it in action with the widespread clean-up initiatives taking place this morning throughout London, organised by local people. We have seen it too, with numerous stories last night of people helping one another and walking them home to ensure their safety, as well as local groups coming together to protect property non-violently (notably migrant communities). In contrast with groups employing social media to organise to loot and burn, there is a more hopeful story of groups organising to put things right.

But the two approaches are also distinct, and cannot easily be pursued at the same time. Again, we saw this last night, with police asking people to leave the streets so that they could get on with the job (which by implication did not involve local people). What might things have looked like if whole communities came out onto the streets instead in a well organised and intentional demonstration of solidarity?

The road that we now travel down will depend a great deal on how the problem is perceived. Despite the claims that this is “just criminality”, the picture that seems to be emerging is more specific. This seems to be largely (but not entirely) a phenomenon of some (and only a few) young people in a certain age range. The actions seem to be of a specific type – arson, robbery, looting and the destruction of property. And there seem to be socio-economic factors at work, including social exclusion and inequality.

The analysis is only just beginning, and the issues are complex. We shouldn’t rush in with sweeping generalisations. We should not engage in knee-jerk reactions which we will later come to regret. But neither can we afford to ignore what lies beneath. What we believe the problem to be will also shape the approach employed. Both the way we want to be policed and our beliefs about what has gone wrong, will determine our response.

It has been put well by Ally Fogg (reproduced here and hat tip to Mark Braud) who says:

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer.

When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism & looting we've seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

There are few things more dangerous to a society than a populace with nothing left to lose.

What we may well be seeing is young people engaging in criminal acts due in part, or at least made far easier, by their disconnection, alienation and exclusion from society. (This is not an excuse, but to point to a potentially significant contributory factor). If this is the case, the answer is not more social exclusion, but social re-engagement and inclusion. Indeed, to fail to engage local communities and resorting primarily to heavy-handed approaches, may be inadequate in the short-term and make things far worse in the long-term.

There is no magic wand to wave. But a way forward surely lies in encouraging as much as possible the engagement and mobilisation of communities – particularly the friends, families, institutions and networks around the people at the centre of the current troubles - to address together the problems which lie at their heart.

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