Reporting on a riot that didn’t happen

When does a lack of a riot need an explanation?

Last night there was not a riot in Bromley. All yesterday afternoon rumours were tweeted that there would be some disturbance in this south London suburb, which also prides itself as being in north Kent.

The night before there was minor trouble: the two shops by the bypass selling electronic goods were looted, a single window was broken at Primark, and - pointlessly - glass was also smashed at a rather good independent fish and chip shop. But, according to excited tweeters, it was "all going to kick off in Bromley" last night.

Except that it did not. So does the lack of a local riot need as an intensely anxious explanation as one which does take place? Normally, one would not feel any need to explain the lack of a riot in any suburb on a Tuesday night. However, last night was special: further riots were predicted throughout Greater London, and riots did take place in Manchester and Birmingham (where a local barrister reports the front glass doors of the Crown Court were kicked in).

If any explanation is needed, one factor is that the high-value electrical goods shops with an escape had already been done over, and were boarded-up last night. Any other looting of expensive goods would have needed to come further into the pedestrianized centre, making it less easy to take the products away.

But that, of course, was not the main reason for the lack of a riot. Far more significant were the twenty to thirty officers who were in the centre of Bromley at any one time. From around 7 pm onwards, police officers outnumbered civilians at a ratio of about two to one. Anyone coming into Bromley looking for trouble, or a free television, would see at least six fluorescent jackets on any road coming in. The Market Square was usually deserted. In these circumstances, it was difficult to see any significant disorder occurring, and indeed none did.

And whilst Bromley was left to wandering pairs of police officers and almost-empty buses, idiots on Twitter were publishing breathless misinformation. The Glades Shopping Centre was on fire (it wasn't) and there were explosions (there weren't); it was "shocking" what was going on (but nothing was going on); and - inevitably - it was "all kicking off" (it really was not at all). The boring and simple reality was that Bromley was quiet all along: I know, I was there. It was almost as if some Tweeters wanted to get up momentum in the hope that there would be trouble. No doubt at such point, those tweeters would then all go "OMG".

So last night a suburb did not have a riot, and this was primarily through a heavy one-off presence of police. But this raises further questions. What happens when such policing is no longer possible? And was it right to use such substantial policing instead of, say, deploying military resources? The answer to the second of these questions is surely that, as a matter of basic principle, it is never right to not use civilian police to police civilians although other parts of the country may feel rightly upset at the switch of policing to London (especially from Manchester and the West Midlands). And as for the first of those questions: we have to wait and see whether the rioters and looters decide to attack the centre of Bromley again, when all the police have gone away.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear