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.)

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left