Burning Questions

Burning Questions

Tuesday was the 40th anniversary of the introduction of internment here. If that ugly experience taught us anything, it showed how woefully deficient ‘intelligence’ sometimes is, and how out of touch, how ill-advised and how inept governments and their agencies can be. That lesson was reinforced this week, when police forces across England were caught on the hop by gangs of marauding youths wreaking havoc in its city centres.

Flames first lit in London on Saturday gradually fanned out across much of the country. Businesses – from pawn brokers to jewellers – found themselves in a literal firing line, targeted by ‘hoodied’ mobs, who looted and torched all before them in a sickening orgy of destruction. The police struggled to cope and elected representatives found thermselves just as badly exposed.

European airspace filled with the drone of aircraft ferrying bronzed politicians home early from holiday to deal with the crisis. Prime Minister David Cameron - who convened an emergency Westminster debate on the violence - flew back from Tuscany; his Deputy, Nick Clegg jetted in from Spain; and, as if things weren’t bad enough already, London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, also cut short his holiday (although his staff declined to say where he’d been). The hapless Johnson evoked the blitz spirit as – brush in hand – he tried to rally furious Londoners; they weren’t buying it, though.

Surreally, in the midst of the summer mayhem, scantily-clad women played beach volleyball on Horseguards Parade to promote next year’s Olympic games in London. If the blame game was an Olympic sport, Britain would already be guaranteed its first gold. Pin-striped and kitten-heeled politicians pointed fingers at ‘yobs’, while the Sun – God save us – demanded “decisive action”, calling for “our brave police” to be given “a freehand to smash the mobs – whatever it takes”. You can almost hear the scaffolding being erected in market squares across the land.

More intelligent commentators have sought to understand why the rioting happened in the first place. How did concern over a controversial police shooting in north London degenerate to the point where gangs of blacks and whites, males and females, young and old, went on the rampage as far away as Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool?

There is absolutely no excuse for the destruction we’ve seen on our television screens this week but we should nevertheless try to understand why it happened. An excuse is not the same thing as an explanation, and only by understanding can we prevent a recurrence.

There is no doubt that many opportunistic thugs and criminals took advantage of the anarchy around them to plunder high street stores in search of branded trainers, flat screen TVs and so on. But are they really very different, I wonder, from the ‘legitimate’ scavengers plotting to make billions from the market turmoil which has afflicted global economies recently?

Clearly there are questions to be asked about parenting, when youngsters as young as 9 are wearing masks and smashing up shopping centres. What about the influence of role models who earn obscene amounts of money and treat women as sexual commodities? What impact does our celebrity-obsessed, money-mad culture have on impressionable, poorly-reared, hopeless young people.

There is clearly a disconnect between the police and large swathes of the population, which minimises trust and respect and makes the job of maintaining law and order immensely more difficult. How much longer can we afford to ignore all the warnings about a growing, disaffected underclass? Last year I made several trips to London, staying in Kensington each time. I was struck by the patchwork of wealth there, with the very affluent residents of leafy Holland Park living cheek by jowl with the very poor from run-down Shepherd’s Bush. The two areas were only one tube stop apart, but a world away from each other in terms of aspiration.

There is much for Messrs Cameron and Clegg to digest as they contemplate this week’s disorder and plot their way through the minefield of economy recovery. The ordinary decent people who have lost homes, jobs and property as a result of this week’s rioting will rightly expect the law to take its course and justice to be done. Others would go further, advocating everything from using water cannon through deportation to shooting offenders. But, as we have seen here, glib words, trite responses and kneejerk reactions rarely work. The problem runs deeper than many people think or care to admit. Whether the lesson has been learned, though, is anyone’s guess.

Read more from Paul McFadden in the Journal every Friday