We see ourselves as a calm people, we Brits: phlegmatic and orderly. When riots break out in our cities, we don’t know what to think. The vandals have no objectives, no purpose, and no clearly defined grievances. Thrill seeking, plunder, and the desire to biff a copper: these things hardly amount to a political agenda. The original commotion, in a deprived area of London called Tottenham, followed a protest about the death of a local man. The police maintained that he had been shooting at their officers, while some of his friends refused to believe it. But that case was soon forgotten even in Tottenham; it certainly had nothing to do with the text- and Twitter-organized brawls that spread, first to other parts of the capital, and then across England’s cities.
Pundits and politicians have, of course, tried to press events into some meaningful narrative. As people usually do when confronted with something unexpected, they seized on the disturbances as a vindication of whatever they already happened to believe. Rightists saw a generation of spoiled louts, drained by the welfare state of any sense of personal responsibility. They saw the products of politically correct state schools that had failed to instill discipline. They saw a milquetoast police force, more concerned with anti-racism than with the protection of property.
Leftists, by contrast, saw the effects of poverty and inequality—and possibly also of racism and police brutality. The riots brought forth several classic demonstrations of the “everything before the but is bullshit ” hermeneutic rule: “I’m not condoning what has happened, but ... ” The race industry blames racism; public-sector workers blame the closure of local services; Labour—with varying degrees of directness—blames the Conservative government. Ken Livingstone, a former London mayor who is Labour’s candidate in next year’s mayoral election, argues that “the economic stagnation and cuts imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division.” It seems pedantic to pick him up on the fact that total public spending is 7 percent higher than it was when Gordon Brown left office; as far as most media are concerned, “the cuts” are now an established fact.
Political leaders in all parties have cut short their holidays. David Cameron caught a 3 a.m. military flight from Tuscany; Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, jetted back from Calgary; the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, returned early from Devon. All three men have been tramping around the afflicted areas looking somber, and the House of Commons has met in emergency session. Yet it is far from clear what politicians can do. Debates about welfare reform or housing policy, while interesting, are of little immediate relevance.
What is immediate is the failure of the police. Although individual officers have behaved bravely—in some cases heroically—in extremely difficult circumstances, their leaders have been slow, reactive, and timid. The Metropolitan Police, which covers London, has been having a wretched time recently, having lost its two most senior officers over the phone-hacking scandal last month. Even before that, it had been demoralized. The last Labour government had put it under a disastrous chief named Ian Blair, who seemed to believe that the promotion of diversity was, if not quite the sole function of his officers, then certainly the principal one. Now Londoners in the stricken boroughs complain that the police are slow to arrive, and that when they do turn up they are unwilling to go in hard.
There are plans to place English constabularies under directly elected representatives, as in the U.S.—a reform that would almost certainly lead to a more gloves-off approach. In the meantime, however, the police need to be reminded that they are there, above all, to be beastly to scoundrels. These disturbances are criminal, not political. We can’t properly call the rioters anarchists, since many of them depend on the state for their livelihood. No, these are simply unpleasant young men who display the flip side of Britain’s stoicism, namely our propensity for terrifying violence. It’s arguably a handy attribute in wartime, but it has no place on our streets. We need to tilt the balance of incentives for the thugs so that the risk of joining a riot outweighs the gain of peer status and perhaps some looted DVDs. There are no root causes to explore, no complaints to address, no issues to negotiate. What is required is a response commensurate with the violence.