As a 17-year-old Suffolk teenager is slapped with a 12-month internet ban, 120 hours’ community service, a 12-month youth rehabilitation order, a 7pm curfew and absolutely no Domino’s pizza (probably), for what amounts to some poor-taste pratting about on Facebook, I ask whether the British government has learnt anything from the last 10 days?
At the start of this week David Cameron addressed a news conference from a youth centre in his parliamentary constituency of Witney. The idea of Cameron declaring a ‘war upon gangs’ from this quaint little West Oxfordshire market-town, a location, socially and politically, a million miles away from most of the sites of civil unrest, shouldn’t really have got past the ‘suggestion’ phase of whatever inner-circle brainstorming session the Conservative Prime Minister and his coterie of advisors were engaged in over the weekend. The fact that it clearly seemed like such a good idea to Cameron and his cronies gives us a little bit of an insight into just how detached our chief policymaker is from the affairs of his nation. Granted Cameron was standing in front of a graffiti-daubed wall that proclaimed a single word ‘Base’ (a perfect match, perhaps, for Cameron’s gung-ho call to arms) alongside a cartoon ‘hoodie’ (again probably meant to evoke the cuddly ‘hoodie’ hugger of old), but surely it would have leant a bit more ballast to his bombast if he’d taken his press conference onto the streets of Tottenham, the provisional ground-zero of the rioting. Instead the routinely patronised ‘general public’ are presented with what could be more cynically interpreted as an expression of that easy idleness that has formed the waspish sting of so many attacks on the riots, the rioting and the ‘underclass’ of rioters. Why bother traipsing off to London town, the Midlands, or the dreary North, when you can far more easily squeeze yourself into a press conference next door to your constituency surgery?
During the press conference Cameron talked up his long-held desire ‘to mend our broken society’, talking of a ‘social fightback’ to coincide with the ‘security fightback’. He made a point of highlighting the necessity to confront ‘the moral collapse’ of British society, as well as pulling the discussion of the underlying causes of the violence away from ideas it was linked with poverty and deprivation, choosing instead to focus on the terms ‘behaviour’ and ‘responsibility’. In perhaps the most irritating and empty piece of rhetoric, Cameron talked up a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility that left:
Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control.
The simplicity of this listing technique, as if Cameron had just reached into his back pocket and pulled out the shopping list, begged for some sense of issues that had been grappled with over the last few days of analysis and reflection. Instead Cameron gave the glib assurance that he wouldn’t be ‘found wanting’ when it came to confronting unspecified ‘issues’ with the determined voice of his people.
Despite the best part of a week to contemplate what exactly had got so many young people’s knickers in a twist, the best that Cameron could do was tell the public that he would definitely do ‘stuff’ and he’d wage war on gangs to do it. It appeared that upon the etch-a-sketch (come on it was actually an I-Pad, you know) William Hague, Theresa May and himself had been constructing their analysis, they’d realised that these ‘youths’ were organising themselves using the most sophisticated, cutting edge and ‘clandestine’ of new technologies, like the BBM.
After his press statement on the riots, Cameron did visit Tottenham, but under a partial media-blackout. Cameron was happy to have the cameras rolling alongside him whilst he visited leisure centres, sat down with police and emergency services and turned up at a fire station. However, the cameras were not allowed to follow him into the homes of the 50, or so, families he visited, who’d been victims of the violence in the area. Now this could be Cameron simply being respectful to members of the public, as we know how his caring Conservatives always try to avoid unhelpful and reductive generalisations that may be perceived as disrespectful and unhelpful by large sections of the population (sorry, it’s mean, but I couldn’t resist). On the other hand it could just be a certain reluctance on his part to advertise to the nation his inability to even come close to placating the anger of people who may have more pressing things on their mind other than a ‘war on gangs’.
Regardless of all this, the ‘social fightback’ began in earnest today however, with the first convictions of teenagers who had been implicated, via their Facebook profiles, in inciting the ‘gang’ violence and rioting that had taken hold of Birmingham, London and Manchester. One of these ringleaders, who received the punishments listed above, was able to potentially provoke looting and pillaging from that hotspot of social unrest more commonly known as Suffolk. According to the Bury St. Edmonds magistrates court that passed sentence on the 17-year-old, he had posted messages on Facebook that stated “It’s about time we stood up for ourselves for once. So come on rioters – get some. LOL.”. Now am I alone in thinking that this may not necessarily be quite the organisational genius David Cameron’s ‘war’ suggests it should be? Wasting the magistrates courts time with prosecution of a dumb sentence or three, seems almost as foolish as the comments themselves. The fact that the prosecution made reference to the boy having over 400 friends on Facebook, some of whom replied to the message just to call him an idiot, only further compounds the ludicrous show of pantomime paternalism from a government that wants people to start being ‘responsible’. The boys defence pours further scorn on the pursuance of this government policy, when he claimed rather plaintively “I meant it as a joke which is why I wrote LOL at the end.”.
There we have it then, not only has David Cameron routinely underestimated the scale of the violence, the alienation and disenchantment of certain urban populations, the general tenor of public outrage and the aspects of the violence which have struck the strongest chords with citizens of the communities most affected (it’s not like that in Witney, though), but it also seems his government is so out of touch with the youth of Britain that it can’t even discern a joke when it reads one. Even a joke with the prerequisite acronym signposting of ‘LOL’.
The fact that today barrister, and former anti-terror adviser, Lord Carlile has been speaking out against the way in which Cameron’s government have appeared to ‘lead’ the law courts toward tougher, harsher sentences for those involved in the riots, can only make Cameron’s response to the riots look as kneejerk and nonsensical as Bush’s rail-roading of civil liberties for his ‘war on terror’. The major difference here being that whereas Bush, however foolishly, was declaring a ‘war’ upon enemies of America, it would appear that Cameron may have embarked upon a ‘war’ against his own people. Without the sense of a considered and reasoned analysis of the riots, any such ‘war’, whether genuinely directed toward ‘gangs’ (however they may be defined) or not, can only end with further unrest and a repeat of this po-faced farce.