Thursday, August 11, 2011


The only positive thing to come out of this week's shameful events, is that Charlton are still in the Carling Cup.

I read an interesting analogy this week which argued policing was akin to banking.

Essentially both are built on a fundamental lie. In the banking case, if all depositors asked for their money back at once, they could not have it.

In the policing case, if there is criminal activity taking place in an unusually high number of places, much of it will be committed undetected because there simply aren't enough police officers.

Despite this apparent 'lie', both essential services work so long as they maintain credibility.

In the banking case, that vital credibility was lost in 2007/8 when customers woke up to the fact their deposits had been loaned out to subprime borrowers.

This week the Met lost credibility when it became apparent to enough wrongdoers, that they were ill-equipped to deal with multiple technologically-driven riots, springing up seemingly at random across the capital.

To the astonishment of many, it appears only 12% of the Met's officers are on the beat at any given time. Is it any wonder they were overpowered?

Once the 'surge' of 16,000 officers had taken place on Tuesday night, credibility had been restored again. It was the policing equivalent of a bank recapitalisation.

Londoners have always been proud that unlike most American cities for example, the city is not neatly segregated between rich and poor areas, but is instead a true melting pot.

Assuming this is a desirable attribute, I had wondered how long this seemingly cosy state of affairs could continue as levels of inequality approach American levels.

Interestingly New York (a city I know as well as London) is arguably one of America's less segregated cities, but until the mid-1990s it represented a real daily battle for those right-minded citizens who loved the vibrancy, but feared for their safety.

The famous 'zero tolerance' approach to policing nibbled away at the petty criminals, and made it clear that even avoiding a subway fare would no longer be tolerated.

Reading between the lines, David Cameron has been preaching a form of 'zero tolerance' for the first time here too.

Of course within a decade New York had become the 'safest big city' in America, although it has not been achieved without a very visible (and armed) police presence, still very noticeable today.

As a result, New York has not experienced the same degree of 'white flight' to the suburbs, reminiscent of many newer cities like Atlanta or Los Angeles.

Londoners would be loathed to think that their city could ever resemble these rather soulless places, a rich commercial core surrounded by deprived areas that one only passes through on their way somewhere else.

The road infrastructure doesn't lend itself to this way of living here anyhow.

However I think many Londoners have been understandably shaken to learn exactly what some of their poorest neighbours are like.

After all despite living so close, their lives effectively co-exist in their own vacuums.

They don't drink in the same pubs, don't shop in the same supermarkets nor increasingly educate their kids in the same schools.

This was exemplified for me by comments such as, "You don't expect this type of thing near Primrose Hill", as if the rioters would respect an artificial estate agent's border between gritty Chalk Farm.

When we returned from New York, we chose not to live in London itself precisely because I sensed the apparent equilibrium was unsustainable.

I continue not to feel entirely safe there, and now seemingly not without reason.

I would never claim that living outside the city is vibrant, but my kids don't need to know about urban deprivation, at least not yet.

My own life has been one of boundless opportunity, so writing about these topics does not feel entirely comfortable.

I am the product however of a Dad who grew up without a father on a Hackney council estate, and as if this wasn't miserable enough he chose to support Charlton too. If he was a member of a gang, he's never spoken about it.

As a result of his hard work however, my own upbringing was extremely comfortable.

There were some desperate black men in the neighbourhood who were visibly losing hope of achieving even a modicum of success, but then again they did play for Arsenal.

The UK has tried to plough a middle furrow between what I would term the tough 'US model' and the gentler 'Nordic model' (no jokes please).

Even if we wished to move further towards the latter from here, the fiscal crisis ensures we can't afford it.

A conspiracy theorist might even argue the riots were orchestrated by George Osborne personally, such will be the hardening of public attitudes towards welfare reform.

There is a clearly an unacceptably high number of families who are well-versed in their rights, but know or care little about responsibility.

Many of the teenagers rioting this week would only have known a Labour government before 2010. Coincidence? You decide.

I believe there are two reasons why I wouldn't loot if I walked past a smashed shop window.

Firstly there's what I would call the 'moral angle' ie. that fuzzy sense of right and wrong, presumably instilled by my parents and other key influences.

Second there's the 'rational angle' ie. the part of my brain that reminds me that a criminal record would ensure I lost my job, and much of my ongoing ability to earn a good living.

The weight of these two influences differs from person to person, but I suspect that the 'rational angle' is relatively stronger than many of us would like to acknowledge.

In the case of these rioters, the 'moral angle' is clearly already lost, perhaps even irreparably so.

However the 'rational angle' can yet be introduced in either a positive or negative sense.

In a positive sense, better education and introduction to opportunities outside of gang membership may over time give them too 'something to lose'.

In the negative interpretation, ultimately they may have to lose their freedom, as the UK acknowledges its liberal justice system is not compatible with unavoidable US levels of crime and inequality.

On a positive note, despite the best efforts of the BNP and their ilk, the multicultural aspect of London living was brought to the fore, and only in the very best sense.

It was hard not to be moved by the sight of proud Turks or Sikhs 'protecting their manor', as proudly as Charlton and Millwall fans reportedly did in Eltham (although I wonder whether the truce will hold once Therry Racon has played a half dozen games).

Whilst these rioters may have been 'Premier League' scumbags, few that live in this country can deny that there is an unhealthily deep scumbag pyramid right below them.

There are levels of unpleasantness in this country (much of it alcohol-driven) that I simply don't observe in similarly rich countries, whether here in Europe or even in the US.

Indeed I'm not sure there is a massive moral chasm between the riots we observed this week, and the ongoing and typical scenes played out every Friday and Saturday night across the country.

The difference might be no more than a couple of hundred quid extra per week.

Worth bearing in mind as economic growth stalls and unemployment remains uncomfortably high.


At 12:39 PM, Blogger Kings Hill Addick said...

Your suggestion about George Osborne was interesting. I would imagine that the riots have also prevented the vast majority from noticing that the markets have been in free fall and that all the economic growth forecasts are being cut again.

"Did you see that the economic foresasts have been cut again this week?"

"No! Did you see that massive fire in Croyden?"

At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Eltham" wasn't as cosy as it was initially made out if you read the local press NYA; positive thoughts, but then taken over by the EDL, followed by the stoning of a bus, and eventually kettled by the police.


NB Ironically, the word verification asked for here is "Cop Hoses"!


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