"The peasants are revolting." That has been a cry of the ruling elite for centuries, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was no less scathing of the rioters that have disturbed the capitalist cosiness of the British consumer. Mr Cameron, initially slow to respond to the escalating riots that have now spread to many parts of England, was very quick with his words: "There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick," he said. Revolting indeed.
Let's be very clear: rioting, the looting of shops and the violent attacks on persons and property is not acceptable. The revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world, albeit seemingly stalled for the time being, have been built on the premise of peaceful demonstration. The riots in the UK have no clear political purpose, yet there is a strong underlying frustration amongst many sections of society, not just blacks, not just the youth, even though those groups seem to be amongst the most dispossessed in Britain today.
Economic woes, a Government which a large number of people regard as illegitimate and certainly not carrying a sufficient mandate for the scale of cuts and reform policies they are pursuing, and a strong lack of any clear, upright model upon which to base identity and opportunity, have brought about a situation that has been a tinderbox for some time.
Rabel is an organisation that seeks to highlight the moves towards authoritarian rule and campaigns on civil freedoms, and part of this is to bridge the gap between the authorities and those for whom the authorities tend to ignore and oppress. The police are in a very difficult position, as is the Government, but there is a point-blank refusal on the part of those in power to acknowledge that what has been called "broken Britain" is in part their responsibility. The sudden disappearance of the idea that it is the "system" that is broken, replaced by the idea that "certain sections" are broken, is a grave and in its own way violent swing back to the authoritarian rhetoric of the previous Conservative government, a time when many draconian legal measures were brought in under the auspices of the rumoured "get the miners desk" and the desire to stamp out alternative lifestyles. Any suggestions that there may be a deeper-seated cause are dismissed with force. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was firm: he didn't want to hear of any socio-economic reasons. He wanted blood.
And so we come to a situation where a government that has dubious political legitimacy has inherited a situation where there are more draconian measures on the statute book than ever before; the police are distrusted by large swathes of people due to cases such as Ian Tomlinson, the Ratcliffe-on-Soar protesters, the hounding of photographers and the collection of vast amounts of information on political activists and ordinary people and the racially-biased use of stop-and-search without suspicion.
Now, with real disorder having been on the streets, any talk of rolling back these oppressive measures has disappeared. According to a YouGov poll, 33% of respondents support live ammunition being used against the rioters. The use of water cannon has 90% approval according to the poll, and despite the Home Secretary Theresa May initially ruling it out the Prime Minister has now confirmed that the water cannon is to be prepared for deployment within 24 hours if deemed necessary.
Just a few weeks ago the government indicated it would listen to concerns by many organisations that the word "insulting" in the Public Order Act 1986 should be removed. The law means that in certain circumstances insulting someone is a criminal offence, such as if the language is racist or relating to someone's sexuality. The police have been arguing that such a law is necessary in order that they may be able to arrest people in disturbances who they would not otherwise be able to arrest. Such a law is an affront to the idea of civil freedom, yet that law is now likely to stay unchanged.
Likewise, Caroline Lucas MP's amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill that would have repealed the offence of aggravated trespass is now even more likely to be rejected.
There are also areas that have wider concerns, such as the new legal territory of arresting and charging persons for "tweets". Can 140 characters, the limit for a tweet, leave you being hunted down by the police? According to the BBC, four people have so far been arrested for using social media to incite violence. As Matthew Ashton, a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, says:
"In terms of civil liberties we really are in uncharted waters. People should not be imprisoned for tweets made as jokes. However concerted attempts to bully people into suicide should not go unpunished either. I suspect that the lawyers and philosophers will be kept busy for several years trying to untangle these issues."
Yet the police are intent on pursuing those who have made certain remarks.
Another concern is the rhetoric of the police. Police forces have been using Twitter themselves to threaten people with arrest. Posted as generalised threats, it is unclear whether the intention was to warn, terrorise or smother dissent. It is, however, concerning. The police have also issued statements making quite clear that CCTV is watching you: "Hundreds and hundreds of people, we have your image, we have your face, we have your acts of wanton criminality on film. We are coming for you, from today and no matter how long it takes, we will arrest those people responsible," said Greater Manchester Police's Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan.
There is no doubt that there is a massive push and call for the police to act ruthlessly, or at least "robustly" as political and police leaders phrase it. And there is no doubt that order needs to be returned to the streets.
Yet it will be very surprising if the great defending of civil liberty which the government trumpeted as it came into power will now happen. The rhetoric is brutal, the options being considered are extreme, the chances of sense prevailing are remote.
A Prime Minister is supposed to lead, the police are supposed to protect, and the people are supposed to contribute. Yet heads have now been lost, and the prime minister follows the baying of the crowd for vengeance, the police are given powers to maim with plastic bullets and water cannons, and the people suggest that dispossessed and hopeless youths should face being shot at with live ammunition. Which, incidentally, was the spark that ignited the fire in the first place.
However, we must be careful to be clear as to where the responsibility lies. It is the rioters that are in the wrong. Although the police and government may be disliked and distrusted in many sections of society, we must acknowledge that they do a very important, and very challenging, job. The role of the police has been vital in restoring peace to the streets of Britain, and we must applaud their role. But the baying for more police powers, a tougher response and the use of dangerous crowd-control methods never before used on the British mainland is not a reasonable response to the riots.
This article was written by Mark Hanson, and is republished with his permission. It was originally published on the Rabel WebPaper, here: