The picture of burnt out cars may not be the most dramatic of the day, but it is my own and it is very local. I experienced last night in ways all too familiar to old Troubles hands. It was all happening five minutes away but I didn’t hear a thing. I was busy tut-tutting at the TV showing long lingering shots of infernos in Croydon and Enfield. And secondly, when it happens near you, you feel differently. The centre of Ealing very near where I live was by no means the worst hit but it was the most surprising target of the night. Central Ealing is fairly affluent and definitely middle class. Local estates are mainly Asian and some distance away.
This is one case where the old denial mantra may actually be right: “they came from outside the area”. Expect to hear talk of organised anarchism soon, not just copycat violence. Rubber bullets and water cannon are mentioned in the same breath as curfew and bringing in the army. The last two are rot. This is no sustained insurgency, it’s hit and run, then leave it to the looters. Of which in Ealing mercifully, we have very few – though H Samuel seems to have been the main exception.
Why, why why? Information is scant and analysis correspondingly lite. Early attention inevitably focuses more on policing than background. Even Labour MPs are resisting blaming the cuts, recalling perhaps Tony Blair’s insight that it’s working people who suffer most from breakdown.
Cries of “where were the police?” grow louder and louder. Cameron’s announcement that 16,000 will be on the streets tonight may blunt the fury, depending on what happens. But with only 6,000 on duty last night, plus claims of how stretched they were, confidence in the already beleaguered Met leadership will not improve nor in the overworked concept of operational independence and their cumbersome procedures and conditions of service.
“What do we want from the police?” is always a fair question that is likely to be asked in different terms after this week. Ben Brogan‘s Telegraph blog gives a flavour of the emerging Conservative critique. This is the harder revisionist line from John O’Connor a former Met commander, writing in the Guardian. Will local people give offenders up? This is a stern test of all those years of community liaison. Will the courts break the habit of giving them bail? If not, where will they put them? London is poorly geared for this.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London