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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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