Will Cameron attempt to understand the riots?

In 2006, he said: "Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing c

Harriet Harman is normally one of Labour's best media performers but she was badly outclassed by Michael Gove on last night's Newsnight. Her first mistake was to claim that Ed Miliband had been "well received" in Peckham because of his opposition to "the trebling of tuition fees, the taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the cuts". Her words appeared to imply that the riots could, at least in part, be explained by anger over these policies.

Scenting blood, Gove replied: "Harriet, do you think there are people breaking into Currys to steal plasma TV screens and breaking into Foot Locker to steal box fresh trainers who are protesting against tuition fees or EMAs?" To which Harman rather limply responded: "No. Don't put me in that position", ignoring the fact that she'd done that all by herself. From that point onwards, Labour's deputy leader was constantly on the defensive as Gove demanded repeated condemnations of the violence from her ("Michael. Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I totally condemn it," she said, appearing to protest too much).

Harman's confused performance contrasted with an earlier BBC interview in which she robustly condemned the violence and emphasised that "most young people, whatever their circumstances, do not resort to criminality." But her mistake was not to suggest that we must examine the underlying causes of the violence, rather it was to fail to identify the correct ones. It is absurd to claim that the riots were triggered by the tuition fees rise and by the abolition (or, rather, replacement) of the EMA, policy changes that many of those rioting are not affected by and have no awareness of. But they were a symptom of a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake. As The Spirit Level pointed out, the most violent countries in the west are also the most unequal ones. Thus, Harman was right to declare: "I don't agree wth Cameron when he says it is simple. It is not. It is very complex. But unpicking those strands is for another day." (If only she had taken her own advice.)

In his short statement outside No. 10 yesterday, Cameron argued: "This is criminality, pure and simple". But while the Prime Ministers' desire not to be seen to explain away the riots was understandable, he must eventually offer the thoughtful, analytical response of which he is capable. In 2006, in what was dubbed his "hug a hoodie" speech (though he never used that phrase himself), Cameron argued: "The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes. It doesn't mean excusing crime but it will help us tackle it." Without this, he warned, "we'll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes." Cameron was talking about youth crime but he could have been talking about this week's riots.

That speech was delivered during Cameron's "detoxifying" phase, before the hiring of Andy Coulson and his swerve to the right. But if he still believes in tackling the causes of crime, rather than merely the symptoms, he must revisit these early insights. His statement to Parliament tomorrow will be the first test of whether he is prepared to create the intellectual space for a more thoughtful debate to begin.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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