Tuesday, March 11, 2014 

Bob Crow has the last laugh.

It can mean only one thing when someone few had a good word for while alive is praised to the skies when they pass on: those making the tributes are glad their adversary is gone. The political figures marking the untimely death of Bob Crow know that the most visible and effective trade union leader in a generation will no longer be there to call their boneheaded, knee-jerk anti-worker nonsense out for exactly what it is.

There is little in politics that inspires hatred quite like success.  Time after time, thanks to knowing when to fight his battles and also, admittedly, due to how the RMT was one of the few unions left with the power to gridlock parts of the capital if it is so wished, Bob Crow succeeded in either saving the jobs of his members or improving their pay and conditions.  As is now only being made clear in the obituaries, he combined his outward militancy and apparent obstinacy with a willingness to compromise once the RMT had succeeded in getting the employers to the negotiating table. This was precisely what happened after last month's 48 hour tube stoppage: it was only once the strike started that there was any movement from London Underground Limited.

For doing his job well he was naturally vilified, albeit only by the ever backwards looking right-wing press, with the Tories following closely behind.  Constantly wanting to relive what they consider their past glories, believing that the overall fall in union membership obviously means that everyone hates the unions as much as they do, they only made themselves look ever more foolish.  It reached the stage last month when every time Boris Johnson appeared it was pointed out that if the same rules he demanded for unions, of a 50% support threshold for a strike to go ahead, were applied to the mayoral election then he wouldn't have won outright either.  As for the media, much the same was the case when journalists desperately tried to find commuters outraged at not being able to use the tube for a whole 2 days, amazed that the majority seemed sympathetic towards the opposition to the closing of ticket offices with staff being made redundant.

Not that even the likes of the Graun were averse to making it personal.  That despite earning £145,000 a year Crow continued to live in a council house was apparent evidence of his hypocrisy, as though his moving out would make the slightest difference to available housing stock or stop his political opponents attacking him.  Nor should he have gone on holiday just days before the strike when the paparazzo were just bound to follow him, instructed to follow an overweight middle-aged man to Brazil rather than do their usual job of sticking camera lenses up celebrities' skirts.

Crow's legacy ought to be obvious.  Far from him being the last of his kind, what's needed now more than ever are union leaders who aren't afraid to stand up for their members, who will make the case for the working classes, and who will fight for solidarity in the 21st century against those who all but suggest such organisations are no longer needed.  Also apparent is the Labour party is no longer the vehicle for such a stance, an indictment of where the party has ended up.  When Boris Johnson can make an on camera tribute, it is the height of cowardice for Ed Miliband not to, out of some apparent perverse fear that it will be later used against him.  Crow would have laughed at such behaviour, just as he so often had the last one.

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Monday, August 13, 2012 

Reality bites.

Well, the less said about the closing ceremony the better, yes? There are after all enough innate contradictions in Jessie J's Price Tag dirge without her arriving to sing it in the back of a Rolls-Royce, in surroundings which confirm that err, yes, it really is all about the money.

Musical apocalypse aside, even a hardened pessimist such as myself has to admit the last two and a bit weeks have been both a success and thoroughly enjoyable. Despite the media's overwhelming positivity though, the Graun's poll on whether it was all worth it is hardly as conclusive as portrayed; 55% compared to 35% thinking it was is a percentage that will soon fall if, as expected the Olympics hasn't done as much for the economy as the coalition insisted it would. The far from universal euphoria will soon fizzle out (And check also the depressing numbers that, while supporting multiculturalism, still think that immigrants don't bring anything positive).

Some of the waste involved has been obscene, none more so than the ridiculous levels of security. According to the police up until Friday they had made a grand total of just less than 250 arrests, the vast majority of which were for ticket touting. Would a minister now like to remind us just why there was a need to put missile silos on the top of blocks of flats, or indeed why we had to have the Zil lanes that went almost completely unused? There was also no need whatsoever to close off vast swathes of land surrounding the areas where the events where being held, but such were the restrictions we were told were necessary.

As should now be obvious, the only thing the Olympics is really about is the sport. If they provide something resembling a legacy to deprived parts of London then that's a bonus. Instead, apart from the left over buildings and arenas, the one other likely to remain is yet another poxy unneeded shopping mall. Much of the responsibility for this does have to be levelled at the Blairites who convinced themselves the Olympics was just what London needed, and whom inevitably fell completely for the commercialisation of everything. Remember Tessa Jowell introducing the horrid logo, informing us all that this was a "iconic brand"? Everything followed on from there, and if we needed any further confirmation then the "VISA party" to mark the closing of the Beijing Olympics provided it.

Considering those involved in the planning then, that everything went almost entirely smoothly barring a few minor hiccups to begin with was a bonus. A successful games wasn't enough though, 65 medals for "Team GB" or not. Heaven forfend that everything built specially for the games should then be handed over to local communities to enjoy and run, as that would just be a waste. Hence the early sale of the Olympic village to the Qataris, and more is likely to follow. When David Cameron sets a ludicrous target of bringing in £1bn in investment, he sets himself up to fail. Everyone enjoys a change for a couple of weeks, being in a different city that bends over backwards to welcome the foreign guests and athletes, and then they move on to the next one. This is what the modern Olympics is about, as Sydney, Athens and Beijing have demonstrated. Rather than indulging in fantasies, we could have been realistic. For all the excitement and achievements of all and sundry, it's now back to earth with a bump. Still, hows about Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, eh?

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012 

Let's do something very British: make the best of it.

I apologise in advance if this shocks anyone, but I have a confession to make. I didn't watch the opening ceremony live. I'll just let that sink in for a second.

Yes, it's true. I took one look at the pre-released extract of the nurses dancing and thought, nope, don't think I'll bother. And on that, I stand by my initial opinion: fine sentiment, not quite as good execution. As for the rest, well, it was crap, but it was crap in the best possible way. Certainly nowhere near as crap as China's reprise of 1936, or worse yet, the handover segment from the closing ceremony last time round (my predictions for the opening ceremony were thankfully not proved correct, although I was, sadly, part right about Amy Winehouse). It still had to involve the Queen, David Beckham and Seb Coe, but dear old Brenda seemed bored near to tears by the whole thing, while Seb talked out of his foot as could be expected. The bits that nearly raised it above crap were the forging of the rings and the inspired decision not to give the lighting of the cauldron to one person; I'd had a horrible premonition it was going to be Brenda doing the honours.

Some people, naturally, wanted to read far too much into it. Not just Aidan Burley, who dug himself a hole so deep he must be somewhere near Australia currently, but also Pollyanna Toynbee, who laments that Danny Boyle's vision of a "deep-dyed social democratic nation" is being torn apart by the coalition. Fair enough, the current government is a disaster, but are we really deep-dyed social democratic? Let's not kid ourselves here. That it also annoyed a certain section of right-wingers who detected socialism, political correctness or any of the other modern British "cultural evils" in it says far more about them than it does about Boyle's direction or Frank Cottrell Boyce's script. Indeed, if anything it reflects how they've become out of touch, rather than it being the other way around.

If the media as a whole appeared to love the opening, then we could perhaps have relied on the Mail to play at least one discordant note. Given the chance to sound off in the Mail Online's RightMinds comment section, Rick Dewsbury managed to make all the other criticisms and complaints seem insignificant by comparison. It wasn't just the celebration of the NHS when it's a system that occasionally fails, it was the completely unrealistically portrait it painted of mixed-race relationships:

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.

Almost, if not every, shot in the next sequence included an ethnic minority performer. The BBC presenter Hazel Irvine gushed about the importance of grime music (a form of awful electronic music popular among black youths) to east London. This multicultural equality agenda was so staged it was painful to watch.

Almost immediately realising this was just a teeny bit beyond the pale, the piece was quickly edited so something approaching the opposite was stated:

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but such set-ups are simply not the ‘norm’ in any part of the country. So why was it portrayed like this and given such prominence? If it was intended to be something that we can celebrate, that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together, then it deserves praise. But what will be disturbing to many people is top-down political manipulation – whether consciously or unthinkingly – at a major sporting event.

Before the Mail realised it was on a hiding to nothing and the piece simply disappeared. Luckily, John Walker managed to capture it before it disappeared down the memory hole. That perhaps not everything in the ceremony was meant to be taken literally, as the last time I checked nurses no longer wear those sort of uniform, and James Bond is, err, fictional, seems to have passed some people by.

It is after all possible to think the opening was better than it could have been and enjoy the sport while still loathing the ridiculous levels of security, the areas being closed off for the duration to the public, the privileges demanded by the Olympic "family" and the sponsors, and the likelihood that there will be no real legacy to speak of despite all the promises, as Andrew Gilligan points out. It is an incredible waste of money, but let's make the best of it while it's on, eh?

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 

Outsourcing the blame.

There's one thing about the G4S Olympic security fiasco that seems to have passed everyone by: government ministers have barely directed a single word of criticism at the company itself. Take a look at Theresa May's second statement to the Commons yesterday, and if you can find her so much as saying G4S are a bit crap then you win a cookie. What she did claim was that the Home Office had absolutely no idea that G4S was unlikely to be able to fulfil its contract, and that it was completely untrue that James Brokenshire had been told about it in advance. While the hapless Nick Buckles didn't quite contradict the equally hopeless May, during his evidence to the Home Affairs select committee he did say officials knew about problems with "scheduling", and that he had had contact with Brokenshire. There was however confirmation from Buckles that the government was first told there could be a problem on the 3rd of July, 12 days before May made the announcement to parliament last Thursday, and also supposedly only the day after she herself was told there was likely to be a shortfall.

Fairly obvious is that for whatever reason, G4S and the government have drawn up something resembling a non-aggression pact. No minister has so much as criticised Buckles, let alone called for him to resign, and seemingly in return, Buckles didn't say anything today to throw the spotlight back on the government. Indeed, he took the ire of the committee entirely on his own shoulders, as part of an apparent masochism strategy. Yes, he agreed that the entire thing was a shambles, even though Theresa May had denied that was the case last week, and he accepted that this was a disaster for G4S's reputation, which is quite saying something considering the company's history. He won't though be resigning, and the company will still be taking the £57m management fee it so richly deserves, regardless of how astonishing someone as jumped-up as Keith Vaz thinks that is.

Neither it seems will Theresa May, or for that matter anyone at Locog, who signed the contract in the first place be losing their jobs. That G4S had never before provided over 10,000 security officials for one specific event was no barrier to their being awarded the contract, and besides, as far as they were concerned it wasn't for the money involved, as they'd only be making a measly £10m profit had everything gone smoothly. It was more to simply be involved with the games, as nothing provides a boost quite like being the company responsible for the pat downs everyone entering the various events enjoys. Instead that job will now fall partially to our wonderful armed forces, who are as MP after MP stood up to say yesterday the finest in the world. You might think that the finest soldiers in the world deserve better than to be tasked at the last minute with clearing up the mess left after an outsourcing disaster, able to take the holidays they'd booked in advance, or even say get married, but apparently not.

Truly key it seems to the coalition is that the outsourcing bonanza continues. It is after all relying on the privatisation of vast swathes of the public sector in order to bring the deficit down, or so it's claimed. Really going to town on G4S wouldn't have helped anything when they're expected to be the main beneficiaries of the outsourcing of back office police work, or indeed the contracting out of probation, to say nothing of the continuing selling off of the prison estate. That unfortunate things like the death of Jimmy Mubenga take place is to be expected, and the guards who restrained him will not now face manslaughter charges anyway, as his death could have just as much been caused by "a combination of factors such as adrenalin, muscle exhaustion or isometric exercise", to quote the CPS decision not to prosecute. No one truly believes the Olympic shambles has compromised security, even if ministers and the likes of Seb Coe keep saying it hasn't in an apparent attempt at proving the opposite, so what's the fuss? Just sit back, enjoy the circus, and you'll soon forget this ever happened.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012 

And so it's almost here.

There is no question, Theresa May informed us today, of the security of the Olympics being compromised. Well, no, there clearly isn't. When you've already got more troops in evidence around the Olympic park than we currently have in Afghanistan, with another 3,500 now required to make up for the numbers G4S haven't been able to provide, missile silos on roofs, fighter jets on standby and an assault ship moored on the Thames, London is nothing if not secured. What it's being secured against isn't entirely clear, seeing as the threat level remains stubbornly at "substantial" rather than the critical setting it was at for years under New Labour, but you can never be too careful. And for those with a conspiratorial mindset, can it really just be a coincidence that there are thousands of squaddies in London just in time for the anniversary of the riots, considering how critical our holidaying politicians were of the Met's initial response?

As for it being a shambles, well, what else is new? Also mysterious is that it's only now that commentators are being fully critical of the entire set-up: the obscene sponsorship deals, which meant that workers at the site could only buy chips with fish at vendors other than McDonald's, until Locog stepped in (although customers, i.e., those that have bought tickets and should therefore within reason be allowed to do whatever the hell they like while in attendance, will still only be able to buy chips on their own and with anything other than fish from McDonald's), the sell-off of the Olympic village to the Qataris, as they clearly haven't bought up enough of the capital already, the "VIP lanes" for officials and general travel chaos that will ensue, and of course, the almost constant presence of Seb Coe and Boris Johnson on our screens.

Oddly enough, the one thing that has gone well so far has been the torch relay, if you can manage to overlook its origins at the 1936 games and how the Chinese last time round used it as propaganda bludgeon. Yes, we've had to put up with the likes of Will.i.am bearing it despite his contribution to the musical apocalypse, and how it isn't so much a relay as a bus tour of England with occasional stop-offs, but it really does mean something to those ordinary people chosen to hoist the flame aloft, even if it is only for 300 metres. As for everyone else, it's impossible to know to how we'll remember the games until the err, actual sport begins. I suspect once everything gets going that the events themselves will go off without any hitches, while everyone trying to do something that isn't connected to what's going on at the venues around the country can go hang for the duration.

The truth is it was ever thus. All things going well, after the games the Olympic stadium is likely to be the new home of West Ham United; not so in China, where the magnificent Bird's Nest stadium has been little more than a tourist attraction since, or in Greece, where most of the other venues have been decaying since 2004. The entire point of the Olympics and indeed the World Cup in the modern era seems to be to provide long-term benefit not to the hosts, but to the sponsors and organisers. If there are some positives for the localised area where they're hosted, then that's just a bonus. Despite the initial scaremongering, few would disagree that the dual hosting of the Euros by Poland and Ukraine this summer was something of a triumph, but whether that will translate into long-term benefits through an increase in tourism is doubtful in the extreme.

Politicians who would never of dreamt of spending £9bn solely on regenerating the East End have naturally oversold the games from the beginning. What was a vastly expensive New Labour vanity project has become a happy diversion for the coalition, hoping above hope that everything goes well, that it boosts the economy a little and might just manufacture a feel good factor. Yeah, right. There were also additional bonuses, at least according to Seumas Milne, one minister saying the Olympics were a "tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space". Well, quite. Mainly though, as long as there aren't any more disasters, it'll fill the papers during the silly season with nonsense (no change there then) overwhelming any stories about how useless the government continues to be. And considering the year they've had, that'll be enough. Whatever conclusion the rest of us reach will be irrelevant, as our views have been from the beginning.

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Friday, August 19, 2011 

100 years ago...

Not entirely analogous to the last couple of weeks, but it's always worth returning to William Rees-Mogg's most famous editorial:

Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

Mr. JAGGER has been sentenced to impris
onment for three months. He is appealing against conviction and sentence, and has been granted bail until the hearing of the appeal later in the year. In the meantime, the sentence of imprisonment is bound to be widely discussed by the public. And the circumstances are sufficiently unusual to warrant such discussion in the public interest.

Mr. JAGGER was charged with being in possession of four tablets containing amphetamine sulphate and methyl amphetamine hydrochloride; these tablets had been bought, perfectly legally, in Italy, and brought back to this country. They are not a highly dangerous drug, or in a proper dosage a dangerous drug at all. They are of the benzedrine type and the Italian manufacturers recommend them both as a stimulant and as a remedy for travel sickness.

In Britain it is an offence to possess these drugs without a doctor's prescription. Mr. JAGGER's doctor says that he knew and had authorized their use, but he did not give a prescription for them as indeed they had already been purchased. His evidence was not challenged. This was therefore an offence of a technical character, which before this case drew the point to public attention any honest man might have been liable to commit. If after his visit to the POPE the ARCHBISHOP of CANTERBURY had bought proprietary airsickness pills on Rome airport, and imported the unused tablets into Britain on his return, he would have risked committing precisely the same offence. No one who has ever travelled and bought proprietary drugs abroad can be sure that he has not broken the law.

JUDGE BLOCK directed the jury that the approval of a doctor was not a defence in law to the charge of possessing drugs without a prescription, and the jury convicted. Mr. JAGGER was not charged with complicity in any other drug offence that occurred in the same house. They were separate cases, and no evidence was produced to suggest that he knew that Mr. FRASER had heroin tablets or that the vanishing Mr. SNEIDERMANN had cannabis resin. It is indeed no offence to be in the same building or the same company as people possessing or even using drugs, nor could it reasonably be made an offence. The drugs which Mr. JAGGER had in his possession must therefore be treated on their own, as a separate issue from the other drugs that other people may have had in their possession at the same time. It may be difficult for lay opinion to make this distinction clearly, but obviously justice cannot be done if one man is to be punished for a purely contingent association with someone else's offence.

We have, therefore, a conviction against Mr. JAGGER purely on the grounds that he possessed four Italian pep pills, quite legally bought but not illegally imported without a prescription. Four is not a large number. This is not the quantity which a pusher of drugs would have on him, nor even the quantity one would expect in an addict. In any case Mr. JAGGER's career is obviously one that does involve great personal strain and exhaustion; his doctor says that he approved the occasional use of these drugs, and it seems likely that similar drugs would have been prescribed if there was a need for them. Millions of similar drugs are prescribed in Britain every year, and for a variety of conditions.

One has to ask, therefore, how it is that this technical offence, divorced as it must be from other people's offences, was thought to deserve the penalty of imprisonment. In the courts at large it is most uncommon for imprisonment to be imposed on first offenders where the drugs are not major drugs of addiction and there is no question of drug traffic. The normal penalty is probation, and the purpose of probation is to encourage the offender to develop his career and to avoid the drug risks in the future. It is surprising therefore that JUDGE BLOCK should have decided to sentence Mr. JAGGER to imprisonment, and particularly surprising as Mr. JAGGER's is about as mild a drug case as can evr have been brought before the Courts.

It would be wrong to speculate on the JUDGE's reasons, which we do not know. It is, however, possible to consider the public reaction. There are many people who take a primitive view of the matter, what one might call a pre-legal view of the matter. They consider that Mr. JAGGER has "got what was coming to him". They resent the anarchic quality of the Rolling Stones' performances, dislike their songs, dislike their influence on teenagers and broadly suspect them of decadence, a word used by MISS MONICA FURLONG in the 'Daily Mail'.

As a sociological concern this may be reasonable enough, and at an emotional level it is very understandable, but it has nothing to do with the case. One has to ask a different question: has Mr. JAGGER received the same treatment as he would have received if he had not been a famous figure, with all the criticism and resentment his celebrity has aroused? If a promising undergraduate had come back from a summer visit to Italy with four pep pills in his pocket would it have been thought right to ruin his career by sending him to prison for three months? Would it also have been thought necessary to display him in handcuffed to the public?

There are cases in which a single figure becomes the focus for public concern about some aspect of public morality. The Stephen Ward case, with its dubious evidence and questionable verdict, was one of them, and that verdict killed STEPHEN WARD. There are elements of the same emotions in the reactions to this case. If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr. JAGGER is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr. JAGGER received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.

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Thursday, August 18, 2011 

2031 here we come.

Much as this blog has always been against the tendency to split the whole population of a nation down the middle into two distinct groups in the past, I'm finding it hard to see such nuances when it comes to the sentences given to the "Facebook rioters". You have those who think that four years in prison for making events pages on a social networking website for riots which were never going to take place is ridiculously harsh, and then you have vindictive wankers who have obviously never done anything stupid in their entire lives who think it's perfectly acceptable.

The ostensible reason why Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have received what seem such disproportionate terms of imprisonment is that inciting a riot, even if it doesn't take place or was never intended as anything other than a joke, is regarded as a more serious offence than the violent disorder which would result from it. This is underlined by the ranges set out by Judge Andrew Gilbart in his remarks before sentencing the first batch of those who pleaded guilty to taking part in the rioting in Manchester and Salford: he argues "that the context in which the offences of the night of 9th of August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality", and so feels likewise that the normal sentencing guidelines "are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from". His starting point for "organisers of riots or commerical burglaries" after trial is 8 years upwards.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan then if anything seem to have got off relatively lightly, such is the climate that has descended. Judge Elgar Edwards, who sentenced both men, described their offences as happening at a time of "collective insanity", before going to err, describe what Blackshaw did as an "evil act". Perhaps though we shouldn't be so surprised: we've seen with the #twitterjoketrial that judges and the authorities don't take kindly to what seem to online dwellers like ourselves self-evidently mocking messages, regardless of the hints of menace they have in them. This was of a different scale, and added to the general level of unease which communities all around the country were going through, with the police turning up at Blackshaw's proposed location, yet it's both the lack of consistency between the terrible crimes you can commit and get 4 years for and the knowledge that there were plenty of other people out there on Facebook and Twitter spreading rumour and panic causing much the same fear and uncertainty without so much as being lectured for doing so that makes it stick in the craw so much.

Not that there's much consistency either in the sentences which have been handed down for those taking part in the actual looting. Gilbart gave Linda Mary Boyd, the woman who picked up a bag containing stolen alcohol, cigarettes and a mobile phone ten months suspended for two years. He judged her to be unlike the others he was sentencing, despite Boyd having a long record of petty offending. Such considerations were not given by Judge Robert Atherton, who sets out how he "respectfully agrees with the ranges" outlined by Gilbart, to Conrad McGrath, a 21-year-old student who previously seems to have had an entirely clean record. Arrested after being seen in a looted Tesco Express, Atherton sentenced him to 16 months for burglary (PDF). Even when taking everything into account, including McGrath's stupidity and his role in the wider unrest, it seems an overly harsh punishment for a first-time offender who didn't actually steal anything. A twelve month suspended sentence, which involved perhaps a curfew and also a form of restorative justice would surely both serve the stated parameters of "sending a message" while also acting as an effective punishment.

The Heresiarch asks:

That being the case, is it really fair to hand out exemplary sentences to rioters who were merely acting in accordance with human nature, who are not actually violent criminals? And is such sentencing policy good either for them or for society?

He goes on to suggest it is. I'm not so sure. While the public mood is undoubtedly in favour of the harsh penalties being handed down, and some of those involved truly are deserving of what they have coming their way, our prisons are not exactly renowned for their work in reducing recidivism, while the current overcrowding is hardly going to improve the conditions for those first time offenders finding themselves in a circle of hell as a result of a few hours of madness. It's also dubious that the fear of such punishments can ever overcome the peer pressure of the mob when you're caught up in it.

Moreover, all the signs are that last week's events are another one-off which we'll end up looking back at in a similar way to the race riots 10 years ago and the disturbances in the 80s: memories fade quickly, while the young often have only the most superficial knowledge of events during their early childhood. It's safe to bet that plenty of those under 21 had very little to no knowledge whatsoever of the Toxteth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of the 80s. Exemplary sentences only stay that way as long as they can be recalled. Come the 2031 riots, those on all sides will doubtless make the same arguments all over again.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011 

How soon we forget.

Further to Bagehot's piece in the Economist, linked to by 5CC, on how we've been here before, here's a brief history of rioting from the latest Private Eye:

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Monday, August 15, 2011 

Shorter David Cameron.

It is time to take stock. It's clear that over the last few days, through a mixture of blaming the police and failing to talk to almost any real people where the rioting took place in case they heckled me like they did Bozza that I've begun to look out of touch.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Look, here I am on the mean streets of Witney with grafitti art as a backdrop. It even has hoodies. I mean business, and we must mean business. However, we musn't oversimplify. This is why everything I'm about to blame could have been come up with by a speak your weight machine ingeniously converted to giving right-wing political opinions.

Moral relativism. Political correctness. Greed. Irresponsibility. Children without fathers. Schools without the birch and fagging. Rights without responsibilities. The state incentivising such behaviour. Police officers not being on every street corner because of Labour's barmy bureaucracy. Parents who fail to keep their children under lock and key every minute of the day. A welfare system that encourages laziness, arson and wearing your jean waistband around your testicles. The human rights
act. Health and safety. Helen Flanagan. Gordon Brown. Chocolates next to the tills at supermarkets. Lady GaGa. Grand Theft Auto.

Happily, even though I hadn't so much as mentioned the broken society since I almost won the election, the government was already providing the panacea to all of these problems. Some of the solutions are simple, like reforming the welfare system until no one can claim anything and handing the control of police locally to politically motivated monomaniacs. Introducing a voluntary national citizen service so those who already have their Duke of Edinburgh gold award can add another line to their CVs is something I'm incredibly passionate about. Deporting all of those 350,000 "problem" families to the Isle of Man. The more complicated stuff we can get Steve to blue-sky brainstorm.

Let me be clear then. The government can't do all of this on its own. Especially considering the global economy has imploded again and we're potless. We are in all this together. That's why it took a journalist to remind me to ask the audience what they thought. They agreed with me. Funny that.

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Friday, August 12, 2011 

Not quite apropos of nothing.

I think we should shut Louise Mensch down.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011 

The tone is set and the blame game truly begins.

When you're in politics, it's a fairly dangerous game to start blaming the police. Not only are they almost certainly more popular than you are, even in the aftermath of the worst breakdown of law and order in the capital in recent memory, they're also the last people you want to get on the wrong side of. Jacqui Smith succeeded in annoying them so much they marched on parliament. Anyone remember what happened to her?

It's curious then that both David Cameron and Theresa May did just that in today's recall of parliament, later joined in their certainty by clapping seals on the backbenches. Just as bizarre is that it makes a libertarian lefty like myself, not exactly a noted cheerleader for our fearless feds, want to defend them. Even if we take at face value the apparent admittance by the Met that they treated the rioting which broke out on Saturday in Tottenham initially as a public order issue rather than a criminal one, there was perfectly good reasoning behind that: heavy-handed tactics that night would have almost certainly made the situation worse. Their real error was the failure to acknowledge the protest by Mark Duggan's friends and family quickly enough at a senior level.

Even when the copycat violence broke out on Sunday, it still wasn't clear or predictable that pockets of the capital would the next night be in flames. As I somewhat argued two days ago and John B sets out in more detail, the main failure was that the police simply couldn't keep up, nor did they properly understood quite what was happening. Considering few of the rest of us did either until the day after, this is hardly something they can be pilloried for. It also saw something probably unprecedented in terms of rioting, rather than political protest: the use of BlackBerry Messenger and texts (The use of Twitter and Facebook seems to have been pretty negligible as an organisational tool, as both are more or less wide open, although they were a few "inciting" through both) to publicise the targets, in some cases only a matter of minutes before they were then hit. At best the police had a couple of hours notice, and that was if someone bothered to forward the plans onto them. The riots in France back in 2005, the most similar recent outbreak of unrest to our own few days of looting also went "viral" but certainly didn't involve such flash-mobbing.

As the police were so overstretched and without major back-up, the decision in most cases not to intervene in the looting, while undeniably perplexing to the public, was a fairly sound one. There's bravery and preventing disorder, and then there's the distinct possibility of getting beaten to death by a group which outnumbers you by at least about 5 to 1. The efficacy of water cannon and tear gas against such mobile groups who aren't intent on reaching any particular area or repeatedly charging and attacking the police is also fairly negligible. 6,000 officers, normally more than enough to contain even a fairly prolonged outbreak of disorder, simply couldn't take back control. They couldn't however have possibly known things would get as bad as they would. Hindsight, as always, is a wonderful thing.

It's also ever so slightly rich for politicians, always so keen to express their admiration for the bravery of the police to then speak out of the other side of their mouth a matter of minutes later. Both May and Cameron were still on holiday on Monday; those who were doing their best in unbelievably difficult circumstances were out on the streets. Not that either of the former have been out on them much since: May even slinked away from Boris Johnson when he was heckled in Clapham. Since then the government, realising it appears to be on a hiding for nothing, has keep as low a profile as possible. Not a single government minister could find the time to appear on any of the major news programmes tonight, including Question Time, where the affable David Davis had to instead make the "brokeback" coalition's case.

Then again, it's probably best they don't try and defend the measures outlined by Cameron which are meant to stop a recurrence of the violence. Police already have powers similar to ones demanding individuals uncover their faces, and in any case it's rather difficult for a couple of beat coppers to deal with a whole group of people with masks on, let alone when they're already smashing windows. It also begins to defy belief when the ravings of right-wing backbenchers, suggesting the police spray rioters with indelible liquid making them easier to identify later are treated seriously; discarding or burning clothes is something those showered would never think of doing. Just to make things even more surreal, comfort was given to those who called for the army to be brought in, while social networking could also be temporarily shut down in such circumstances, something that certainly wouldn't cause further unnecessary panic or hinder the spread of reliable information on what was happening, as some police forces attempted to provide in real time this week.

Ed Miliband's statement was well considered on the whole, and a few lonely souls did suggest this wasn't just amorality run amok, but the tone does seem to have been set. 16 weeks in prison for a 21-year-old who said to police that he'd "smash you if you took your uniform off", an empty threat if there ever was one and something which he might have got a caution or a fine for at worst in normal circumstances seems ridiculously over-the-top even after this week's events. Pie boy got six weeks for assault, later reduced to four. If being a twat in public is going to get you four months inside, at least let's be consistent.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 

Between the armchair generals and the stereotype sociologist.

I've been trying to think of somewhat mocking comparisons between the flood of comment on the riots we're now up to our neck in (and which I'm going to do the equivalent of pissing in, polluting while adding to it) and likewise exhibits in popular culture. At the one extreme, some of the response looks the equivalent pulling a Wooley, the SWAT team member at the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead. While one of the very slight failings of the film is that it's never clear quite why a SWAT team is going after a gang of criminals when flesh-eating zombies are shambling everywhere, Wooley also isn't too bothered by this chain of events. For him it's the fact that "these low lifes" are living in these "big ass fancy hotels" which are "better than what he has". "You ain't gonna talk 'em out of here, you gotta blow 'em out! Blow their asses!"

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Eric Idle sociologist from the Hells Grannies sketch in Monty Python, so intent on giving his prescription of exactly why these "senile delinquents" have "rejected contemporary society" that he doesn't notice they've opened up a manhole in front of him. Being hoist by your own petard is though a universal danger: as always, pretty much everyone is explaining, rationalising, or rather saying they warned about this all along and it all happily fits their previous prejudices. Hell, I've done it the last couple of days. Melanie Phillips (and others) then think it's all down to absent fathers; Max Hastings in the Mail puts the onus on years of "liberal dogma"; Shaun Bailey says it's all down to responsibility (lack of) and a sense of entitlement, although only the sense of entitlement amongst a certain section; Seumas Milne sticks it all on greed and the rapaciousness of those at the top of society; and the Guardian's leader comment, which has been getting more shrill day by day, fingers both everything and nothing. No change there then.

It is though the ultimate way to play safe. And in truth, all of these explanations have something in them, (with the exception of Max "Hitler" Hastings doing the bidding of Paul Dacre), while also being fairly easy to knock down. Absent parents can have a major impact; they also, as Phillip Larkin will always remind us, fuck us up. Those preaching the virtues of the nuclear family ought to read Hayley Matthews' account of the riots in Salford, where parents with their kids in child seats in the back of cars screamed up and filled their boots (literally) with loot. It would be equally naive to dismiss the fact that in certain cases children are being brought up, either by single parents or not who aren't taught right from wrong, and have had everything given to them on a plate, whether by the state or trust fund, who feel aggrieved that they can't have everything right this instant. Again though, Matthews' account makes clear that certain authority figures do either make those who've taken part think twice, or at least temporarily ashamed of their actions: they might not fear the police, but seeing her dog collar alarmed and troubled them. If their parents had turned up, it's fair to say a good proportion of those taking part would have been shocked and despite what some have also pointed towards, been given at the least a sock round the ear.

The accounts then by those outside the usual commentariat are the ones which most often strike home or point out things those inside their own bubble haven't broached. Kevin Sampson makes the excellent point that it's incredibly easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, as many who've been on protests that have turned violent or nasty can also testify. These might not have been marches, but they also weren't highly organised actions, even if on the surface some of them look that way: opportunism by those along for the ride most definitely happened in numerous places. Those caught so far and being processed through the system look to have been the stragglers or those stupid (or brazen) enough to go unmasked, the ones who stole a couple of bottles of alcohol, shirts or who were in the shops when the mob had moved on. The shame and regret will have hit many of these later, as it will the parents disgusted to find their spoils, not knowing whether to risk turning over their offspring considering the exceptional penalties bound to be passed.

You also know there's a real reason to be worried when the inestimable FlyingRodent is concerned. His point that at the centre of what's happened are the petty criminals among the young, the ones normally involved in minor drug-dealing and causing occasional havoc in shopping centres is a sound one; some of those among them were smart enough to see an opening in London after the riot in Tottenham for larceny on a grander scale than what they're normally up to, and the bonus was that with the summer holidays they had gangs of otherwise bored acquaintances who could both help distract the police and who also then joined in. This was then copied by non-related but similar groupings in the other big cities, and err, Gloucester and a few other minor towns. Into the mix also came a good few adults, as we're also discovering. This isn't to deny that some of the rioting had a political undercurrent, and also that many of these youths, especially the ones on the outside looking in, don't see a future, feeling completely disconnected from their wider communities. Others though almost certainly knew and were friendly with those they came to steal from. Some just hate the police and other figures in authority, for both good and completely and utterly wrong reasons.

David Cameron's reaching for the illness definition is but an echo of Tony Blair's similar statements following the murder of James Bulger. Certain sections of our society do have very deep seated problems, but broken or sick? Some people are just thuggish pricks, as has been demonstrated to the world by the mugging of Asyraf Haziq, being ostensibly helped up only to have his backpack rifled through. They have unfortunately though always been with us, as have gangs of out of control teenagers, and no amount of lectures on morality or responsibility will have an instant impact, or get through to all of them.

However bad things were in London on Monday or elsewhere yesterday, this is not going to become a regular occurrence. There also, so far, doesn't seem to be any instant recourse to further legislation, although we still have the rest of the summer recess once parliament has had its say tomorrow to get through, and then the party conferences, where crackdowns could yet become the order of the day. What we are going to have though is intensified fear of and stigmatisation of teenagers, especially those who go about in hoods, thanks to the efforts of a tiny number of their peers and the foolishness of those who do know better in general. The hope has to be that the current mood soon lifts, and that those calling for the giving of a "free hand" to the police find themselves quickly back in the minority. The middle line between Wooley and the stereotype sociologist is the best place to remain until then.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011 

Fear and media overreaction has to be followed by reflection.

It's difficult to reach a conclusion other than it's going to be a bad day when it opens with Eamonn Holmes on Sky News essentially asking Kit Malthouse why the army aren't on the streets shooting people. When it ends with Kelvin MacKenzie on Newsnight, taking part in quite possibly the least enlightening debate in history also suggesting squaddies should be out fragging the underclass, even if only with rubber bullets, you know that one low has inexorably led to another.

Overreaction to what were unprecedented scenes last night across London was always likely. For the news networks rather than the usual suspects our febrile press to be the main culprits is still something to be surprised by. It's continuing even now, with what are likely to be events completely unconnected to the rioting reported as if they are further evidence of a situation still out of control. This hysterical atmosphere, not helped admittedly by the rise of social networks where rumour and invention are immediately reported and spread as fact, is undoubtedly scaring people who have absolutely no reason whatsoever to be frightened. I'm well outside London and away from the main flashpoints in the other major cities, and yet through word of mouth it was today spreading around that a major local supermarket had been set on fire, almost needless to say when it had not been. Likewise, every major town around the area except for ours was apparently facing down similar outbreaks of lawlessness, again it turned out completely erroneously.

This in turn has resulted in London essentially shutting down tonight and many businesses boarding their windows up, when it looks as if such desperate measures, although precautionary, were completely unnecessary. The violence in Manchester does look to have been serious, although even there it appears to have been localised to the main city centre, rather than in multiple areas. While it is indeed better to be safe than sorry, it always seemed likely that what happened last night was an aberration, a once in a generation outbreak of lawlessness perpetuated by the disaffected, those with a grievance and those simply out to take advantage. Like Sunny I might yet eat these words, but with the combination of the massive police presence, parents refusing to let their children out and the general sense of anger and outrage at what happened it was doubtful there would be a repeat performance. It could just be that it's a lull, and that at the weekend it could start up again, but even then you suspect the numbers of police out will be similar.

The police, having been caught out like everyone else are coming in for criticism which is unbelievably short-sighted and lacking in both humility and candour. Any police force in any major city in any democracy would have struggled to deal with the ultra-localised groups of rioters that were out yesterday, moving quickly both on public transport and in cars. They were stretched to the absolute limit, and knew full well that if they had intervened directly in the looting when they were so often so vastly outnumbered that not only did they risk making things even worse, if that's possible, they would be risking their lives for the sake of a few plasma televisions and shop windows. It requires tens of officers, organised and trained in dealing with mobs, to be able to stop such organised thieving, not the few who were being deployed in restrictive full riot gear. As hard as it is to for the shop owners and others to see their businesses being smashed and in some cases burned while the police stood off and watched, risking exacerbating things would have not helped anyone.

Similarly, those asking why water cannon and tear gas weren't made available or used to break up the looting are confusing their use against protests which often have one specific focal point, where demonstrators are usually attacking the police or trying to get somewhere, and the fast-moving attacks on property seen last night. Even if you soaked and hit/gassed a few of those taking part, the majority would manage to slink away quickly. Moreover, it wasn't just looters who were out last night; there were large numbers of onlookers, as the police themselves said, who risked getting caught up in it. Using the threat of baton rounds could arguably have been effective, which is why they were authorised for use today if they were needed, which they thankfully haven't been. Even then the problems are obvious: the last thing we need or want is the routine use of such crowd control methods, as could easily follow as a result. As has hopefully been demonstrated, the biggest deterrent is not just a temporary major police presence, but also the opprobrium of the community at large bearing down on those who felt temporarily empowered or free from the fear of the consequences of their actions.

The one thing the Met could be criticised for is their overly cautious approach today, urging businesses to close early and recommending the cancellation of tomorrow's England friendly, which if the general calm continues may look daft later. They have at least, unlike the politicians, been urging calm. Urging calm, unlike telling people not to panic which tends to have the opposite effect, seems uniquely British. David Cameron merely gave the impression through his Downing Street statement not of resolve, but of someone thoroughly pissed off that he'd had to come back from Tuscany to deal with the proles finally realising their lives are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. All of the Tories seemed perturbed that despite their predictions rioting had broken out; weren't the inner cities a problem that had been solved, or which could be left to fester without what happened there spreading to their own heartlands? They certainly hadn't bargained on anything like this impeding or questioning the imposition of austerity, which has still yet to properly kick in.

This isn't to suggest that this can be traced directly back to government policy, or excused or explained in such a simple way. It's apparent that some of the rioting, especially outside London, seems to have been conducted by the local hoodlums who the police regularly find themselves dealing with, who shouldn't be given even the slightest benefit of a political explanation for their actions. Some of what we've seen has though had its roots in the hopelessness which many are beginning to feel and which the latest economic figures and market crashes have brought home to them: that we're in a hole and regardless of which of the main three political parties is in power power, all are wedded to policies which are going to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

As Kenan Malik has stated, there doesn't have to be contradiction between the competing claims that this is sheer criminality and that it has a root cause in social exclusion and wasted lives: those taking part are responding in the only way they know how to, which also has the benefit of grabbing attention whilst giving them the feeling of striking back through the acquisition of goods. The one message that has filtered down to them is that you should take what you can. They've followed it. Now the politicians have to find a way of reassuring an outraged middle class without further attacking and antagonising those they've all but abandoned. After the clean up must come the inquest.

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Put down the weapons and turn up the bass.

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Monday, August 08, 2011 

London's theirs, if only for tonight.

It's more than safe to say now that what happened on Saturday night in Tottenham has very little to no relationship with the violence and looting taking place across London tonight. It was however obviously the trigger: whether it was originally anger at the unexplained death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police which then, somehow, motivated the hundreds if not thousands of youths to target their own or nearby communities, or seeing the police completely incapable of taking control of the situation which has subsequently emboldened them to go out and take advantage we're not going to get anything approaching a straight answer to.

Equally clear is that this is now on such a scale that anyone who attempts to provide a socio-economic explanation, or suggest spending cuts have had some impact, as reasonable and possibly based in fact as such points are, is going to be pilloried. Ken Livingstone's various appearances across networks tonight were not the best idea, even if he was mostly saying things that would normally win him support, although he was filling a vacuum which the government was refusing to fill. The Daily Mail, finally seeing some concrete evidence that the youth of today, however tiny a proportion, are completely out of control and aware of their rights but not their responsibilities (as Shaun Bailey et al have been arguing) is already running a piece attacking "left-wing cynics" for blaming the government. This is only going to grow over the next few days, especially as the politicians return and will have to respond, quite necessarily, when media and public pressure will be massive in what will almost certainly be the strongest possible terms.

This isn't to suggest that some of the rioting hasn't been motivated, not only by the rumours swirling around following the shooting of Mark Duggan, some of which suggested he had been laying on the ground prior to being handcuffed when he was shot, but also by discontent at continuing harassment from the police which will have only been felt all the more keenly during the school holidays. Nothing though can justify the completely indiscriminate self-defeating stupidity of so much of what has happened both yesterday and tonight, the targeting not of police, which could at least be easily understood if not condoned, but of everyday small businesses providing a service to the very people who have now seemingly inexplicably turned on them.

I say seemingly as there is no bigger misnomer than the term "mindless violence", especially in this context. Those carrying out the looting are not doing it out of sheer bloodymindedness, or for no particular reason. While some of the attacks have been on soft targets, much of it has been focused on particular businesses, whether it be sportswear, mobile phone or electrical goods shops. And while there is poverty, and economic hardship, most of those taking whatever they can almost certainly already have close approximations of the stuff they're carting off. Normally you might suggest that this is just more evidence of the cold, hard reality of consumerism and materialism, inculcated into those with little into always, perhaps reasonably, wanting more than they've got. This though is wanton, unabashed thieving simply because those doing it can. It's as simple, and as brutal as that.

The reckoning to come in the months and years after this is going to be equally harsh. As tomorrow's Guardian editorial states, screamed at in the comments by those looking for political advantage, the riots in the 1980s led to improvements in policing and also politics. The various reports in the aftermath fingered the discrimination which contributed massively to the rising of young black youth. This time round, not only is it clear that despite the ravings of some that those committing the violence are from different racial backgrounds (whom I'm not going to link to, you can guess who though), the Met has cleaned up its act considerably. True, there can always be improvements, and the numbers of black and Asian men being stopped and searched is still massively disproportionate when set against the proportion they make up of the population, not to mention the police's recent track record in at best misleading the public about the deaths of those at their hands and at worst outright lying initially about what had happened, but it's naive and wrong to put any responsibility on their shoulders for what's took place over the last 48 hours.

At a stroke it's fair to bet that the remaining leanings towards liberalism both on prison and crime policy will be neutered. Almost any power the police suggest they need, regardless of its efficacy, will be at least temporarily given the go-ahead. Stop and search powers have already been extended, and will probably remain so for some time to come. Those whose actions, however slightly, were influenced by discontent at their lot have almost certainly doomed not just themselves but their entire peer group to the kind of treatment that will constrict their everyday life for years. And this time there will almost certainly be very little that can be done to stop the worst excesses which will inevitably follow as a result, especially when numerous people's livelihoods, if not lives, have been ruined thanks to their enormous irresponsibility.

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