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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

The broken society runs amok

At points in last night's London riots, it seemed as if society itself was disintegrating before our eyes. Feral youths running amok in their thousands, outwitting police, torching homes and livelihoods, the violence spreading from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. The police seemed powerless to intervene in a battle where one side was breaking all the rules, and the other was bound to uphold those rules.

The Met were damned if they did and damned if they didn't, caught between rioters getting hurt at their hands and the risk of losing control.

Amid the chaos were heartbreaking tales of family, community businesses up in smoke and a lady, who by day earns an ungrumbling honest wage of merely nine pounds an hour, woken terrified to find masked rioter in her bedroom.

In the end, it was as much the Met's tactics as sheer force of numbers that saw things spiral out of control. They rightly didn’t want to provoke, but the lack of provocation sparked a wave of violence where word of mouth (or BlackBerry) strengthened the bored resolve of those who realised they could do whatever they liked. As the first CCTV images emerge from the Met today, they should suspend their reality no more. A lot of young people will go to prison.

With London alight, the Prime Minister did the right thing and returned to London. The recall of Parliament on Thursday will be an important occasion. We won't be able to fix or understand the causes of these riots quickly. But it will allow the elected representatives of an appalled British public to stand against the feral self-destruction of communities and to begin to explore the root causes.

Already last night, dangerous conclusions were being drawn - mentioning tuition fees or bankers bonuses in this context seemed like simplistic, knee-jerk partisanship (don't do it Ken, if you want to beat Boris).

Thursday's debate shouldn't be a time to score cheap political points. This has happened on everyone's watch - as much on a coalition government imposing austerity as on a Labour party that saw the gap between richest and poorest widen. Thursday will be a time to think deeply about how we heal the deep wounds that will be inflicted on these communities. How we put right the mistrust, suspicion and resentment that these riots - of which we must hope we have seen the worst - will have caused. Above all, that will need people to talk to each other, not score points off each other.

Britain has come a long way since the Brixton riots. But we need to stop sweeping under the carpet the reality that there is a deep social underclass that - rightly or wrongly - feels that it has no stake in society. They were able to trash our high streets, because they felt no part in that society. It will require a radical rethink of rights and responsibilities across our society - amongst parents, police, politicians and community leaders - to put that right.

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