Powerlessness of a fragile system

10.08.11 Publication:

He won’t think this very often, but as he returned home early from his Italian holiday to take charge of the emergency, the British prime minister, David Cameron, must have been praying that he would find traditional English summer weather: rain, preferably heavy rain. For the main feeling in government, and in the police, is impotence in the face of the sudden eruption of rioting and lawlessness in Britain’s main cities. It is as hard to explain these riots as it will be for Mr Cameron to work out how to deal with them. Only rain looks capable of bringing the riots to a quick end.

Explanations quickly fade away to become mere descriptions. What is shocking about the events that have taken place over the past four days is that it has shown Britons how close to the surface of British society are violence, disregard for the law and even disregard for local communities. Just like in France when riots spread in November 2005 and lasted for weeks, there is no obvious reason for why the riots have begun now, and hence no obvious answer to the question of when they might cease.

The initial riots, in the poor London suburb of Tottenham on Saturday, at least had a cause: anger and incomprehension at the killing by police of a local man when he was being arrested. The violence and looting yesterday, in dozens of suburbs and cities, had no apparent cause beyond the fact that young people were copying each other, amid the belief that the police would be unable to stop them, and that setting cars and buildings on fire or stealing from shops is fun, in a sense, if you think you can get away it.

There is, of course, a general explanation: unemployment and a sense of hopelessness in the face of a stagnant economy. Yet British unemployment, at 7.7% of the labour force, is not especially high by European or American standards: the equivalent statistic in Italy is 8.0%, in France is 9.5% and in the United States is 9.2%. We all have higher unemployment rates for young people than for older ones, and there the British picture is no worse than anywhere else.

A tempting explanation is racial tension, for that was clearly the main factor on the last occasion when British cities were burning after riots, thirty years ago, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, in 1981. There is clearly an element of this once again, for the man who was killed in Tottenham was black, and that area has long been known for bad relationships between the police and the local African-Caribbean community. Yet most experts, of all races and backgrounds, say that racial relations in Britain in 2011 are much better than they were thirty years ago.

Moreover, as the riots have spread on successive nights, they have shown no further racial content. The only common element has been young people, generally hooded, smashing and stealing things. There has been no obvious political or institutional target: not big business, not banks, not government, not even the police.

So what should Britons conclude, and how should other countries think about Britain? The first conclusion has to be to shed any complacency Britons may have had. Our society is more fragile than we thought. Our families are weaker than Italian ones, for example, and loyalty to local communities is also weak. The main victims of the violence has been neighbours, small shopkeepers, services and facilities in local communities. Clearly the rioters do not care.

A second conclusion must inevitably be to renew worries about poverty and inequality. No government can afford to ignore the wide disparities in British society, and must do whatever they can to help narrow those gaps. The trouble is that to do so takes a long time, if it is possible at all. And it is inevitably made more difficult in the short term if you are also having to cut public spending.

Third, and most immediate, however, must be worries about security, and general law and order. David Cameron and his government will be considering whether to use tougher methods of policing, including water cannon and armoured vehicles. Almost certainly, he will reverse one element of recent government policy: he will aim to increase police manpower rather than reducing it, as was previously the plan.

With the Olympic Games taking place in London in one year’s time, the thought of riots at that time damaging Britain’s reputation around the world must be giving him nightmares. Most of all, however, like the French prime minister in 2005, Dominique de Villepin, and his then interior minister colleague, Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Cameron’s main feeling will be one of powerlessness. That is why he will be praying for rain.