Pub Philosopher writes:
London suffered its third night of rioting last night. The trouble even spread to my relatively quiet corner of London. It was the Indian boys in the gym this morning who were calling for the hardest responses from the police. Not really surprising, given that their friends and relatives own a lot of the businesses closest to Uxbridge Road - the ones most likely to be torched if things get worse.
Inevitably, those of us with long memories are drawing comparisons with the riots of the early 1980s. Mary Riddell said in today’s Telegraph that the type of rioting and the society that gave rise to it is very different from that of 30 years ago. She’s right, of course, but to understand what is going on now it helps to look back at what happened then.
The 1980s riots were like book-ends to the miners’ strike. The first wave occurred in the early 80s, starting with St.Pauls, then there was a second wave in the mid-1980s, which included the now infamous Broadwater Farm riot. In the middle was the longest running and most bitter industrial dispute the country had seen since the Second World War.
At the time, something baffled me. How was it that the same police force which swamped mining areas and beat the crap out of picketing miners seemed to have its hands tied when it came to dealing with inner city riots? Could the force that got a “bloody good hiding” in Tottenham really the one that, only a year earlier, had charged down thousands of pickets and placed their towns under something close to a military occupation?
It was only with hindsight that the reason became clear. The Thatcher government was hell-bent on breaking the unions. Anything else was a distraction. Riots which might divert police from protecting the mines, or Rupert Murdoch’s new printing plant, were to be avoided. If that meant going easy on the areas where black youths were rioting, so be it. If people in these areas objected to a lack of policing, who cared? They were never going to vote Tory anyway.
In any case, this fitted well with the British establishment’s approach to dealing with troublesome brown people. A tiny number of British soldiers and civil servants were only able to rule a fifth of the world by co-opting maharajahs and tribal leaders. The deal was that the local bigwigs would control their own people in return for a degree of autonomy, a few bribes and recognition in the form of titles and medals. The rule of law was for the wealthy and the white. For everyone else it was local or tribal rules.
So when the peoples of the Empire came to Britain, the most natural thing to do was to apply the same principles. Look for tribal chiefs and maharajahs, then big them up with OBEs and knighthoods. We began to use the term ‘community leader’ but it is essentially the same thing – an unelected local bigwig with whom a deal can be done to stop trouble getting out of hand. This meant abandoning these areas to local ‘activists’ who claimed to have community support and to local criminals who clearly didn’t. But what the hell? That’s how Britain had always dealt with fractious tribes and religious groups. If it worked in Bengal it could work in Brixton.
So we established a norm where these areas would be ‘sensitively’ policed and where ‘community leaders’ would be consulted before any major police operation, allowing the criminals to get well clear beforehand. Effective policing in many of these areas ceased. Into this power vacuum stepped the drug dealers and, behind them, the gun dealers. As Laban TAll succinctly put it, ‘black gun crime is the bastard child of the Scarman report. The response to the inner city riots of the 1980s created the environment in which today’s problems were incubated.
So what’s changed now? Not a lot, it would seem. The lacklustre response of the police, standing back and watching homes, cars and businesses get burned, is even worse than it was in the 1980s. I’m not blaming individual coppers for this, it’s just that the rules of engagement have changed. Many police officers probably feel like Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica; they’d love to have a go but the rules and their leaders stop them from doing so.
It’s not always like that though, is it? Remember when the property of City banks was threatened? The cops went in pretty hard then, clobbering demonstrators and the odd innocent bystander. The will and the political backing for a tough response is clearly there but perhaps it just depends whose interests are threatened by the violence. Those attacking global capitalism, like anti-bank protesters and striking miners, are more of a priority than those trashing their own neighbourhoods and burning other poor people out of their homes.
The aftermath of the 1980s riots set the tone for policing over the next three decades. In poor areas with lots of immigrants, softly-softly policing and lots of consultation were the rule. Nothing should be done which might inflame community relations or upset the ‘community leaders’ who must be kept onside. When it came to civil disorder, the full force of the law was only to be used where wealthy corporate interests were threatened.
As a result, a generation of children has grown up knowing that the police can’t do much to stop them. These youngsters are not daft. Often, they know their legal rights as well as the police do. They know that the police fear being disciplined or lampooned in the media and that this makes them wary of going in too hard.
In some parts of our cities, the local gangsters inspire more fear and respect than the police do. The youths know who runs the streets where they live – and it’s certainly not the police. The swagger that comes from that sense of immunity was on display last night.
Of course, DCI Gene Hunt forsaw all this. As he told ‘Lord Scarman’: "Well, you can take this home in your Harrods pipe and smoke it. In 20 years time, when the streets are awash with filth and you’re too frightened to leave your big, posh Belsize Park house after dark, don’t come running to me, mate."
OK, maybe he was ten years too early but then, he always was a bit of a pessimist.