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p1 Cover: A nation ablaze p3 Leader: Burning issues p4-5 Contents p7 Portrait of the week p9 Diary: Peregrine Worsthorne p10 Politics: Daniel Knowles p11 The Spectator’s Notes: Charles Moore p16 Tottenham Notebook: Ravi Somaiya p17 We have failed the black youth of
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A nation ablaze
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When David Cameron returned from holiday on Tuesday to find volunteers cleaning up the mess left by the riots and shopkeepers making plans to protect their property at night, he did not dare mention the Big Society. Perhaps he should have. The Londoners who organised a clean-up — using the same technology as the thugs used for organising their looting — perfectly illustrated the point the prime minister has so often tried to make. Government has its limits and it is the action of ordinary people, on their own or working with others, that makes Britain tick. But it is the government that should protect the public from crime, educate the poor, and deter the wicked. On this, it is failing badly.
There have been enough riots around the world in recent decades to give us a fair idea about what causes them. Poverty and political discontent are rarely the primary triggers. Riots are, most of all, about a calculation of risk and reward. In Britain this week, the risks have seemed minimal and the rewards, in loot, considerable. The BBC interviewed a looter in Manchester who put it succinctly: ‘The prisons are overcrowded, so what are they going to do? Give me an Asbo?’
He will not know the statistics: for instance, that just 24 per cent of those convicted of indictable offences are given custodial sentencesmeaning that it is statistically as difficult for a felon to get into prison as for an A-level student to get into Oxford University. But the young men can learn from what they see around them. A would-be criminal can ask himself a series of straightforward questions: what are the chances of getting caught? What are the penalties? And if the government is reducing prison numbers, does that make incarceration more or less likely?
Another factor in these riots is, of course, joblessness: young men living in workless ghettos, who have no qualms about vandalising the local neighbourhood because they do not feel part of it. The British welfare state has created an underclass of both black and white who are failed by the school system and left to fester in welfare slums. The looting is not an indication of economic despair. Some 20 per cent of Tottenham’s residents are on out-of-work benefits. Even at the peak of the boom, this figure was 19 per cent. These people have nothing to do: it is little wonder they turn to criminality.
The Los Angeles riots in 1992 prompted Bill Clinton to address American welfare reform and criminal justice. David Cameron should take this chance to look at his own
A worrying mismatch is emerging between government priorities and the concerns of the public policies. To cut prison places in a country with such a high crime rate, as his coalition government proposes to do, is a dangerous folly. Cameron further intends to cut £2.5 billion from the police budgets, while promising to increase the overseas aid budget by £2.7 billion. To those who live in fear of crime, this makes no sense. A worrying mismatch is emerging between the priorities of the government and the concerns of the public.
It is time to correct this, and it is easily done. The issue of police funding is more nuanced than many (including the Mayor of London) suggest. On Tuesday night, the Metropolitan Police flooded the capital with officers, and it worked. As any New Yorker knows, if you put enough police on the beat, crime drops. The problem is not so much the spectator | 13 August 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk police numbers, but the allocation of police resources. HM Inspectorate of Constabulary revealed last year that only one in ten British policemen is actually on the streets at any one time. There is little point in hiring 2,000 more officers if all but 200 will sit behind desks. Reform, here, is more important than funding — and it is needed urgently. The same applies to Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare agenda, explicitly aimed at preventing mass dependency on the state. His proposals are both sensible and radical. But the ten-year timetable is far too long.
In Michael Gove, Cameron has an Education Secretary who has spent years thinking about the problem of an education system that has allowed thousands of young people to leave school illiterate and innumerate, and about how to fix it. Cameron needs to look at Gove’s extraordinary progress (1,000 statefinanced schools are now independent) and ask how his success can be applied to other departments.
The riots are a result not of cuts, but the consequence of fundamental problems in the way Britain has been run.There is a sense that chaos is prevailing, and people are desperate for action — at all levels of society. There is less appetite than ever for Cameron’s vague talk about ‘general wellbeing’ or the other conceits which preoccupied his advisers in the boom years.
The debris in London, Manchester and Birmingham will be cleaned up, the fire damage repaired. But to rebuild is not enough. The underlying causes, which Cameron identified so clearly in his ‘broken Britain’ analysis, need to be tackled. The mood of the country has changed fundamentally this week. The tone of Cameron’s government must change with it.