Some commentators of both Left and Right have said that the rioters were somehow impelled by a sense of moral equivalence with expense-diddling MPs and bonus-toting bankers. I am not sure that will quite do, either. Yes, it was wrong of MPs to cheat the spirit (if usually not the letter) of the system, and yes, bankers’ bonuses are often nauseating. But I simply cannot agree that Gerald Kaufman’s expense-claim for a Bang and Olufsen television has somehow triggered or legitimated the torching of property in outer London. I am afraid the explanations will turn out to be more complex and more various. Some — quite a few – were acting out of greed. Some seem to have been actuated by a feeling of power, a desire to be “noticed”. Some, especially members of gangs, were perhaps doing it because other people were doing it in other parts of London, and they did not want to be left out. Some of them were doing it for “fun”, or excitement, or because they wanted to get one over on the “feds”. Some of them were certainly relatively affluent, and the media have rightly lingered on the millionaire’s daughter and the schoolteachers who have been accused of looting.
The overwhelming majority, of course, came from the lower socio-economic groups, from the ranks of those who have been left the furthest behind; and the most recent figures I have seen suggest that 69 per cent of those charged have previous convictions. It has been said of these young people — and they say it themselves — that the world holds nothing for them, that they have no jobs, no hope and no future. In so far as that is true, it is something we can try to tackle. We can invest, we can “create” jobs, we can boost our apprenticeship programme, already standing at 30,000. But it is just not true to say that there are no jobs available. The London service economy is substantially dependent on migrant labour, much of it from eastern Europe, and employers confirm that these migrants have skillsets and a work ethic they cannot find in many native- born Londoners. Yes, these young people have been betrayed; but they have been betrayed by an educational system and family background that failed to give them discipline, or hope, or ambition, or a simple ability to tell right from wrong. We still have one in four London 11-year-olds functionally illiterate. No wonder they are angry and alienated. They need more tough love; they need mentors; they need to be taught to read, and to see the point of it; they need their gangs broken up and replaced with better alternatives — and we in City Hall will back the next Met Commissioner to help us achieve just that; and if they so much as dream of doing this again, they need to know that they will be caught and punished.
Of all the explanations for the riots, the simplest is that the police lost control in the first few hours. I am sure that with 20-20 hindsight Tim Godwin, the acting commissioner, and his colleagues would agree that some things might have been done differently. But at the moment we politicians speak with forked tongue to the police. They are servants of the law, and the law provides very little protection for any police officer who may — in the heat of the moment — cause injury to a member of the public. Take the officer who allegedly pushed poor Ian Tomlinson during the G20 riots, a motion which may have been far less violent than some that have been recommended to the police over the past few days. He is facing a charge of manslaughter. That could mean life imprisonment. We need to decide at which end of the chain of events we want to be less squeamish.
We can give the police water cannon, or else we can reassure parents that they indeed have the right to discipline their children, and we can declare that teachers are to be unambiguous figures of authority in the classroom. We can issue the police with baton rounds, or we can insist that young people will be prosecuted for swearing at an officer. We can change the law to allow the police to administer sjambok drubbings, or we adults can collectively take charge and recognise that it is up to us to give young people hope, boundaries and a moral framework. We can be less squeamish about police violence, or we can be less squeamish about the realities of young people’s needs. Of course, we could do both — and I certainly believe that robust policing is essential — but I know which is the best long-term answer.