Urban Harvesting


Much has already been written about the unrest that has struck Banbury, Bristol, Gloucester, Oxford, Reading, Southampton and other places since the weekend. Over a long, hot summer, many more words will appear, whether or not the events themselves recur. After the political debate, the weighty inquiry will ponder and pontificate. Recommendations will be insubstantial and – where not ignored altogether – will be incompetently implemented. British government, doing what it does best.

At the end of the story, nothing will have altered. When the IRA blew up the Baltic Exchange in the City of London in 1992, and Bishopsgate the following year, that altered everything. The chaps with the cash told Major to get it sorted and attitudes to Irish affairs saw their greatest transformation in 800 years. Money talks. Emptying JD Sports and Foot Locker can’t compete with that.

If the changes likely are all cosmetic, what brands of make-up exactly are we discussing? Two, mainly. The debate that has been sparked will be dominated by the stale shibboleths of Left and Right, united by a fanatical desire to exclude anyone different from having a say.

The Right starts with the advantage of being in office, albeit not necessarily in power. Its short-term focus will be the exemplary punishment of wrongdoing, an exercise that will sadly disappoint its supporters. Offenders will not be roasted alive on spits. Few will even be sent to prison, unless other criminals are released early to make room and keep within budget. Sentences that go beyond the norm will be challenged by the defence as irrational. Looters will laugh, last, longest and loudest.

The long-term focus of the Right will remain exactly the same as now. On more looting of its own. The looters on the streets have learned their callous inhumanity from 30 years of loadsamoney liberalism. Free enterprise? The enterprise has been audacious, certainly, and the goods free, to be sure. That no money changed hands is a detail that will detain only those who fail to hail the dawn of a new business model, the next ratcheting-up of the Hayekian dialectic, more efficient, less altruistic, with 50% fewer parties to the transaction.

At the time of writing, the riots are confined to England. The Celtic nations, small enough to acknowledge the human scale, where a sense of community endures and the Right has been largely rejected, have escaped. So too has the continent, where the social democratic model survives in still better shape. There has been an Arab Spring, but no sign yet of a European Summer.

The Left comes to the debate with a confession it will not make. That having held power for 13 of the past 14 years, the events it condemns are largely of its own making. It has created a human zoo, an act for which it must not be allowed to avoid responsibility. Four decades of hippy thinking – that time and resources are infinite and that there are no right answers – have fostered a culture of excusing and celebrating what must nowadays always be termed ‘deferred success’. An older, blunter Left would have called a failure a failure and learned its lesson. The newer, parasitical Left dares not solve problems or it would be out of its well-paid job. Institutional empathy has to take the place of solutions, because success would be the new failure. At least the greying student revolutionaries who now run the show are having to think for once before deciding who their heroes are.

Tonight it was reported that Manchester suffered badly yesterday because its police were simply overwhelmed. Their available strength had been diminished by lending officers to keep the peace on the streets of London. It was last night too that unrest spread in Wessex, where previously only Bristol was featured nationally as the scene of disorder. Now we should be concerned. A chief constable’s top priority should be the protection of the force’s own area, lending to others only when that objective has been secured. Every Wessex officer sent to London is one less to defend those at risk in our own towns and villages. It will be instructive to see data on burglaries in the Cotswolds, the Vale of Pewsey or the New Forest while police from the Thames Valley, Wiltshire and Hampshire forces are elsewhere. When trouble flared in Stokes Croft in Bristol earlier this year, in the notorious ‘Tesco’s riot’, foreign police, from south Wales, were brought over to enforce the law. Police from another Wessex force might have been better received but there’s no prospect of that if they’re busy helping Londoners lance their own festering boils.

The possibility of being shot is actually highest in the countryside, not in inner cities. Rural areas are where the guns are, especially the ones held legally. And they’re needed, given the likely police response time if there is any incident. Events in London will lead to the questioning of many longstanding assumptions. Will Cameron’s goal of privatising everything but the police and army survive, or will they in fact be the first victims of the Big Society, as communities decide that if the protection they have paid for is not around then they need to start making their own arrangements? Farmers have already started, following a 17% increase in the cost of agri-crime in just two years. Livestock rustling has doubled in six months. Thefts of quad bikes are a particular plague in Wessex, as are high value tractor thefts in areas close to motorways. Heating oil has also been targeted since the price rose last year and it isn’t even a luxury yet.

Left and Right share the perspective of Jacobin individualism, one which seeks the elimination or subjugation of all institutions intermediate between the central State and the citizen. Neither can tolerate, or even comprehend, the idea of community responsibility, for good or ill. But we do not have to abandon a thousand years of progress in other fields to see that a system the Saxons knew as frankpledge, in which everyone is accountable for their neighbours’ actions, and for any failure on their own part to bring them to justice, creates a self-policing society.

Early in the 19th century, liability for riot damage was imposed on the hundred in which the damage occurred. The hundred was responsible to the king for keeping the peace, so if it failed in its duty, and the troublemakers could not be traced, it was only fair that everyone had to pay the compensation. In 1886 that responsibility was transferred to the police and so rests today ultimately with Council Tax payers in the county or larger area for which a constabulary is constituted. It’s a much fairer idea than insurance, where the future burden of higher premiums falls on the victim and never touches the perpetrator even indirectly.

You would think so. Except that under Labour a consultation paper in 2003 proposed to abolish altogether the last trace of the collective liability for riot damage. Why? Because insurance was seen as a better way, one that did not divert resources from the police, who should not be punished for not doing their job effectively. Top cops, of course, are now wriggling for the review to be revived, claiming that “in a context of cuts the public will see little sense in a shrinking police fund being diverted to pay for criminal damage”.

The public might conceivably disagree. It is no criticism of the frontline copper to say that, for those at the top, payment by results should work both ways. When so much investment has been made in ‘policing by consent’, for apparently so little return where criminals don’t consent to be policed, chief constables and police authority chairmen cannot just shrug off the results as the unpredictable nature of social complexity.

A lot of that complexity has just undergone a rapid simplification. The world will not be same again. When the dust settles, communities will be demanding that the authorities earn their keep, or the communities will keep their taxes. And maybe build for themselves something that history tells us will work.

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