Keeping the riots in proportion

What these exceptional events mean, and do not mean.

So the riots have continued for a third evening. However, in terms of overall crime figures in the communities directly affected, they are unlikely to be statistically significant. Nationally, the criminality of the riots may register as no more than a blip. 

This is not to be callous about the vile lawlessness of what has happened in Tottenham, Ealing, and elsewhere. The pictures of burned out cars and looted shops are real enough. But one main difference between the current riots and the on-going criminality in urban environments is its concentration under an attentive media glare. Nonetheless, every day in every town, people lose their possessions and their businesses because of casual crime, and this is rarely reported on by the media. 

Whatever the significance of the recent riots, it is not that there has been an explosion of crime. If crime figures are an index of a broken society, then society this month will not be that much more broken than last month, or next month. 

What is important is the nature of the current criminality and the assumptions that it unsettles. For any sensible person living in a city these riots are frightening. Instead of urban crime being a background buzz which, unless one is unlucky, is something which happens to other people, these riots appear to present an immediate and disconcerting threat for two reasons. 

First, one can readily imagine the disorder and attendant violence happening in one's own street or shopping centre: if it can happen in Enfield, it can really happen in any suburb. In an instant, every suburb seems potentially unsafe. 

Second, the fact that these riots even occurred indicates the apparent impotence of the police. There was no one there to stop it happening or to make it go away. This adds a stark sense of further vulnerability to the feeling that public and private places are now inherently unsafe. 

The psychological impact of the riots is that criminality is something which now could happen to you in any part of a city. And these rioters are not the noble protesters who pose for pictures whilst swinging from war memorials; they are instead criminals as likely to beat up a press photographer as a rival gang member. What was somebody else's problem is now a mob that seems willing and able to strike randomly. 

What this in turn will mean is that there will be calls for more policing, and far more police powers. People's fears will need to be allayed by gestures; everyone will need to feel safe again. A liberal approach to law and order will now seem to many as simply inappropriate and misconceived. But there is no good reason to introduce water cannon and rubber bullets. Indeed, in seemingly exceptional times, it is more important to adhere to the rule of law and the normal exercise of police powers.

There may be another riot tonight, or there may be calm. There may be another bout of looting, or there may be preventative police action. But when these riots are over, this new sense of fear may well remain. Society will not have broken, at least not in any objective manner; but people's confidence that things will always be alright for them in their daily urban lives could perhaps be broken instead.


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.)

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.