We have seen the worst rioting on mainland Britain for a century. Sections of the Conservative party are in a law and order frenzy. There is loose talk about the use of the army, water cannon and rubber bullets. And David Cameron is allegedly still attracted to the idea of bringing in tough-talking Bill Bratton, the former Boston police commissioner, chief of Los Angeles police and New York City police commissioner, to become head of the currently leaderless Metropolitan police.
There is no doubt that the public is frightened by the way the government seems to have lost control of the streets in many of our big cities. I have walked the streets of Hackney every night since these troubles began and I know.
So the PR man in Cameron may see a flashy American appointment to the top of the Metropolitan police as the answer. It would certainly gain him rapturous acclaim in the Tory press. But in the words of the Whig prime minister Robert Walpole: “They may be ringing the bells today; but they will be wringing their hands tomorrow”. It would be a disastrous appointment. British law, tradition, police practice and community relations are quite different from the United States. For a few days’ good headlines, the prime minister would be risking the cohesion and morale of the entire Metropolitan police.
And using rubber bullets, water cannon and even sending tanks rolling down Stoke Newington High Street to quell looters is not the answer to anything either. Sadly there are a lot of children on the street in the current disturbances. They should not be. And I have urged the community in public, and in private, to keep our young people off the streets. But people calling for the use of weapons need to understand that it would only take one stray bullet to hit a child, and then you really would see our inner cities in flames.
The militarisation of this urban conflict would be a deadly mistake. People who are not looters and would never dream of looting, would be enraged. It would send a message to the people who live in the inner city that somehow this government is at war with them. Sir Hugh Orde, the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who has actually had to order the use of rubber bullets and water canon as police chief in Northern Ireland, is adamant that they are not the answer to the current troubles on mainland Britain.
We have to regain control of the streets. That will mean working with communities, as well as the government being prepared to pay for the level of policing required. But, in a moment of peril for public order and social cohesion, Cameron would be well advised not to listen to the siren voices of mindless authoritarianism.
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