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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Philip Hammond's house gaffe is a reminder of what the Tories lost when David Cameron left

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's blunder confirmed an old fear about the Conservative Party. 

Philip Hammond got into a spot of bother this morning describing the need for a transitional agreement with the European Union by comparing it to moving into a house, saying: "you don't necessarily move all your furniture in on the first day you buy it”.

This immediately surprised a lot of people, because for most people, you do, in fact, move all of your furniture in on the first day you buy a house. Or rent a house, or a flat, or whatever. Most people who buy houses are part of housing chains – that is, they sell their house to raise some of the capital to buy another one, or, if they are first-time buyers, they are moving from the private rented sector into a house or flat of their own.

They don’t, as a rule, have a spare bolthole for “all their furniture” to wait around in. Hammond’s analogy accidentally revealed two things – he is rich, and he owns more than one home. (I say “revealed”. Obviously these are things you can find out by checking the register of members’ interests, but they are, at least, things that are not immediately obvious hearing Hammond speak.)

That spoke to one major and recurring Conservative weakness: that people see them as a party solely for the rich. Focus groups conducted by BritainThinks consistently showed that when people were asked which group of TV families might vote Conservative, the only one that people consistently picked were the “posh couple” from GoggleBox.

David Cameron’s great achievement as Conservative leader was in winning two elections – the first, in 2010, the most successful night for the Conservatives since 1931, with 97 gains overall, the second, their first parliamentary majority for 23 years – despite being a graduate of Eton and Oxford leading a party that most voters fear will only look out for the rich.

He did it by consistently speaking and acting as if he were significantly less well-to-do than he was. Even his supposed 2013 gaffe when asked what the price of bread was – when he revealed that he preferred to use a breadmaker – projected a more down-to-earth image than his background suggested His preferred breadmaker cost a hundred quid and could easily have been found in any upper-middle class home in any part of his country. One of Cameron’s great successes was in presenting himself as an affable upper-middle-class dad to the nation, when he was in fact, well-to-do enough to employ a literal breadmaker had he so chosen.

This is slightly unfair on Philip Hammond who went to a state school in Essex and is by any measure less posh than Cameron. But his gaffe speaks to their big post Cameron problem (and indeed their big pre-Cameron problem) which is that while many conservative ideas are popular, the Conservative Party isn’t. Most of their big politicians are a turn-off, not a turn-on.

And until they can find a genuine replacement for David Cameron, miserable results like 2017 may become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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