Theatrical ‘fightback’ turns to farce
In their post-riot crackdown, the UK authorities looked like scared schoolboys acting tough once the fight is over.
It’s hard to know which is more pathetic: the short-lived cheap bravado of those looters (which sometimes turned to weeping and wailing in court); or the belated show of phoney toughness from government ministers and police chiefs. The authorities have put on a hardman act in the days since the riot – from staging theatrical police raids to sending chumps to jail for months for stealing chewing gum or bottled water – to try to cover up the institutional impotence they displayed when it mattered, in the middle of the trouble that began in London last week.
The more canny looters wore face masks to hide their true identities. The authorities have now donned an iron mask in a desperate bid to conceal the confusion, fear and moral cowardice in high places that was exposed at the time. Everybody is up in arms about the way that rioters allegedly exploited BBM (Blackberry Messenger) and other social media to promote their illegitimate ‘cause’. The government meanwhile has been busy exploiting the weakness of the MSM (Mainstream Media) to get the dubious message of their ‘fightback’ across to their target audience.
Those braggartly idiots who posed for grinning Facebook photos with their hoard of stolen loot have naturally attracted ridicule and contempt. There has been little or no criticism of the way that the authorities have contrived swaggering media coverage of small armies of riot cops raiding suspected looters’ homes, supposedly to show that they are in control and did not really panic when faced with a few hundred barely organised looters and arsonists.
It should now be clear to all, as spiked writers argued from the start, that there was no 1980s-style community ‘uprising’ in Tottenham or anywhere else, just small groups of individuals and rival gangs with no cause to fight for and little in common beyond their taste in sportswear and electrical goods. It is becoming equally clear that there is little sense of community or common cause at the top of society either, as politicians and police chiefs fall out publicly over who was to blame for the initial fiasco and try to compete to take credit for the ‘fightback’.
‘The fightback starts here!’ Tory prime minister David Cameron announced in parliament last Thursday. Listening to his desperate rhetoric anybody might have imagined that the mighty British state with its thousands of well-armed riot police was somehow the brave underdog fighting a war of liberation against the oppressive tyranny of, err, a few hundred shoplifters and firestarters.
And what has this ‘fightback’ amounted to? So far it looks more like an exercise in appearing confident, like a frightened schoolboy talking tough once the actual fight is over, than any meaningful reassertion of the state’s hollowed-out authority. The Lib-Con coalition government’s hasty post-riot proposals for mending ‘Broken Britain’ are largely propagandistic gestures of toughness. So, for example, they want to give the police more powers to stop people going about in masks, as if a scarf tied around the face was a Harry Potter-style cloak of invisibility, which might explain why the police appeared unable to see the looting in north London on their banks of CCTV cameras. There has also been talk of somehow closing down the Blackberry Messenger and similar networks during times of trouble, as if such teenagers’ technology could explain why some kids ran rings around the poor little state machine.
These measures are all trying to externalise the authorities’ problem, to get across the message that it must have been something about the rioters – their masks, mobile phones or superhuman powers perhaps – that explains what happened, rather than the main factor in the state’s humiliation last week being the internal collapse of authority from the top downwards. Even Labour leader Ed Miliband, unofficial spokesperson for the police federation’s anti-cuts campaign, has managed to spot that the government’s crackdown proposals are largely ‘kneejerk gimmicks’.
Then there have been the staged displays of post-riot state power, an exercise in whistling loudly past the graveyard carefully orchestrated with the media. Hit-teams of crack reporters have been sent out with the riot squad to get the dramatic story – and the all-important pictures – of the fightback in action. One typically breathless report told of how, ‘Kitted out in his protective gear, the young constable was raring to go’, as ‘the tables were turned’ on ‘those who brought havoc to the capital’. The young constable told the woman reporter that ‘it feels good. Sure I’m tired, but you just keep going.’ The dramatic impact of this heroic tale was only slightly undermined when she had to conclude that, after the battering-ram raid by the helmeted riot squad, ‘two boys aged 16 and 17’ were arrested.
From London to Manchester, meanwhile, the courts have been playing their part in the post-riot theatre as, alongside the more serious charges of arson and violence, judges and magistrates hand down far tougher sentences than usual for relatively minor offences. There have been six-month jail terms for some like the man caught with £3.50 worth of bottled water stolen from Lidl. Another poster girl for the new making-an-example school of justice is the young mother in Manchester sentenced to five months in jail after being caught wearing a pair of designer shorts that had been looted by her flatmate. As courts that are often criticised for being too soft on offenders swing to the other extreme, the impression grows that she is not the only one dressing up in clothes that do not belong to her.
How long the authorities can keep up this theatrical show of strength remains to be seen. It is clear that they cannot maintain the extraordinary post-riot police presence on London’s streets, and are having trouble keeping up the appearance of a united fightback from parliament to the courts. Already tensions and criticisms are coming to the fore. After all, real authority is not an act.
Most of the serious fighting the disoriented authorities are engaged in now appears to be internal, an extraordinary bunfight between politicians and police chefs. After prime minister Cameron criticised the initial police response in parliament, the acting chief of the Metropolitan Police dismissed politicians as ‘people who were not there’ (a fair point in more ways than one, though many residents might point out that the police did not appear to be ‘there’ either), while another top cop insisted that the government’s response had been ‘irrelevant’ to the re-imposition of order.
Both sides have since been competing to look toughest and claim the credit for the successful ‘fightback’, while the truth is probably more that the low-energy looting simply ran out of steam. The Met chief’s man-of-steel performance was somewhat undermined when he made the diddums-sounding protest that criticism of his force had been ‘extremely hurtful’. But he had a point when he complained about the mixed messages coming from the nervous political class about exactly how forceful they wanted their ‘robust’ policing to be. It is clear the authorities no longer know which way to turn when faced with a crisis, a problem illustrated when Manchester cops who allegedly did as they had been urged and whacked some looters quickly found themselves in trouble with the human rights police.
The net result of the ‘fightback’ is that the authorities risk looking more pathetic and out-of-control than ever. Yet that is not good news for those of us who are critics of authoritarian state control either, faced as we are with a fearful and confused elite swinging from vacant impotence in the face of a few looters to kneejerk gestures of authority that only add to the stock of dangerous laws and policing practices today. That looks like the worst of both worlds.
With authorities-without-authority like these, who needs some looters to let us know that there might be a problem in our society?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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