Lessons from “The Importance of Being Earnest” for 2011 – riots and the Liberal Democrats

I spent an enjoyable couple of hours today at the Barons Court Theatre (in the Curtains Up pub in Comeragh Road) watching a performance of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Professional Help Productions.

Some of the biggest laughs were reserved, as ever, for Lady Bracknell (played by Sarah Dearlove standing in at short notice for Judith Pollard), but particularly for those lines during her interrogation of Jack Worthing, designed to assess his suitability as a potential husband for Gwendolen, which seemed particularly pertinent to 2011 (a mere 116 years after the play’s first performance):

Lady Bracknell. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell. I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to riots and acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”

And then a few moments later:

Lady Bracknell. [Sternly.] What are your polities?

Jack. Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal.

Lady Bracknell. Oh, they count as Tories. ….  Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?”


Theresa May sensibly rules out an American police chief for the Met, but I am less convinced by the idea of “general curfews”

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, today in a major speech sensibly made clear that the next Metropolitan Police Commissioner will be a British officer – following speculation that a US crimefighter, such as former New York police chief Bill Bratton could be considered for the role.  She said she had

“no time for the pessimism which says we cannot find from amongst our ranks a tough crime fighter, equipped to lead the Met”.

This was wise.  Police morale is hardly going to be improved by giving the message that the only person of sufficient calibre to lead the Metropolitan Police is an American.  In fact, when the closing date for applications passes tomorrow, a number of strong and impressive candidates are likely to have put themselves forward.

However, in her speech she also said that ministers are considering new curfew powers – to allow “general curfews” to be imposed on a specific area in England and Wales, rather than being linked to specific individuals, and to allow them to apply to youngsters aged under 16.  This is less convincing. 

Curfews are only meaningful, if they are enforced.  And they can only be enforced effectively if there are large numbers of police on the streets.  And, as we have seen in the last week, if there are large numbers of police on the streets, you are unlikely to have disorder and you won’t need a curfew.

It all comes back to police numbers and police budgets and that’s the area where the Government is on very weak ground.

Four years for inciting disorder via Facebook – what will happen to the Managers of the Odeon Cinema in Panton Street?

Earlier today I went to see the Ealing Studios classic “Whisky Galore” at the Odeon Cinema in Panton Street.  The film, of course, describes the actions of Scottish islanders in recovering a cargo of whisky from a shipwreck at a time of acute whisky shortage during the Second World War despite the best efforts of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise.

The film is a paeon to the joys of looting.

Indeed, it is nothing short of incitement to loot.

Yet earlier today Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan were both jailed for four years at Chester Crown Court for using Facebook to incite people to riot.

So will the Managers of the Odeon Cinema in Panton Street now expect to be arrested under sections 44 and 46 of the Serious Crime Act for intentionally encouraging another to assist the commission of an indictable offence?

They may need to watch themselves …..

 Of course, the police may like to wait until after next week’s showings of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” – an incitement to murder members of the aristocracy if ever I saw one …..

If Bill Bratton is the answer, is David Cameron asking the right question?

David Cameron would clearly like to see Bill Bratton, the former Commissioner of the New York, Los Angeles and Boston Police (obviously not at the same time), appointed as the next Commissioner of Police for London.  His insistence is clearly a snub both to the Home Office and to senior British police, as the Dail Mail puts it “Dave MUST get the world’s best copper…even if that means upsetting Ms May and the Met jobsworths“.  It is also a swipe at Mayor Boris Johnson, who dismissed the idea and pointed out to Sky News that Bratton’s success in combatting crime in New York  was mostly down to a huge ramp-up of police numbers, from 30,000 to 42,000.

Cameron’s criticisms of the police are clearly beginning to unsettle some Conservative loyalists.  As Peter Bingle, Chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, wrote last Thursday:

“In the House of Commons today the PM must also do something which he rarely does. He must act and sound like a Tory. When Maggie was PM she always supported the police service. She understood (instinctively) the importance of the office of constable and that the police were unlike other public servants. In the months ahead the government will rely more and more on brave young police officers to maintain order. Today the PM needs to set out how he and his government are going to support the police. As part of this more money will need to be found. The public will demand this from their prime minister. For once he needs to nod towards Tory Party opinion.”

Nevertheless, David Cameron is clearly fixated on the idea that the appointment of Bill Bratton will make everything all right.

But will it?

Jessica de Grazia, a former chief assistant District Attorney in New York, writing in The Guardian tonight points out that:

“America’s former top cop broke the first two rules of capacity-building (in this case, foreigners teaching others how to reform their law and institutions) by: first, “disrespecting” the British police; and second, showing a lack of local knowledge. … Lack of local knowledge is understandable; our shared language conceals big differences between the laws and institutions of the US, on the one hand, and Great Britain and the Commonwealth, on the other. Not least is the British civil service’s “no risk” culture and its obsession with process, which can be maddening to a proactive, outcome-oriented American.”

And she reminds us:

” London’s gang problem is minuscule compared to LA’s. In 2009, with a population about half the size of London (4 million compared to 7.75 million), LA had 157 gang murders. London had only 13! Since 2002, the Met has got homicides down from 219 to 124. In my book, that’s sterling police work.”

And on the events of the last ten days:

“Regarding the August riots, the police can’t be faulted for not planning for an entirely new situation: gangs using encrypted BlackBerry messaging to organise hit-and-run riots the length and breadth of London. Instead, measure their performance by adaptability, and the extent of injury to life and property.

In the last serious New York riot (in August 1977, which was triggered by a 25-hour city-wide blackout), the police massed in midtown Manhattan, instead of the ghettos where previous rioting had always occurred. In the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, thousands of homes and small businesses were burned out and looted; the final bill came to $155m, in 1977 dollars. In the 1992 LA riots, 54 people were killed – 10 by the police and army. Ten years later, 22 of those murders were still unsolved. There have been four deaths in the August riots, all caused by criminals retaliating against Good Samaritans. Within a week, the police and CPS had arrested or charged the suspects.”

None of this means that Bill Bratton’s advice is not worth listening to, but that is not the same as saying that he will make a good Metropolitan Police Commissioner. David Cameron’s insistence that he will – without the benefit of a proper open appointments process – suggests that the insistence is more about soundbite politics that delivering an effective police force in London.

Soundbites rather than substance – David Cameron’s statement on the riots

The House of Lords sat today and the Leader of the House (Lord Strathclyde) repeated a statement made in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister on the riots over the last week.  The Prime Minister’s speech was carefully tailored with soundbites for the televison news, but it was notable for what it missed out or skated around.

The Prime Minister stressed how important it had been to flood London with extra police officers.  However, there was no mention of the fact that the Government is cutting the police budget by 20 per cent, that police numbers have already fallen by 4,600 since the General Election, and are set to fall even further (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary estimates that there will be over 16,200 fewer officers by 2015).  When in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde suggested that these cuts would “not affect the police’s ability to get policemen on the streets” he was greeted by a chorus of disbelief (or “Oh!” as Hansard puts it) on all sides.

The Prime Minister praised the role of CCTV in catching those responsible for the violence and looting.  However, he didn’t mention that as part of the Coalition agreement the Government was now putting large bureaucratic hurdles in the way of local councils installing CCTV to reduce crime.

The Prime Minister talked of a robust approach to tackling gang violence, but he failed to mention that in opposition the Conservatives had voted against measures to extend the powers to obtain injunctions to stem such gang-related violence and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, who was then Shadow Home Secretary, had described the use of injunctions as a “legally dubious gimmick”.

The statement was light on substance and where what sounded like practical measures were mentioned they often seemed to mean very little in practice.  For example, the Prime Minister said that the Government would be supporting local communities affected and that “the Bellwin scheme to support local authorities will be operational”.  This, of course, only means that local councils get some support from central government when additional – approved – spending for a specific cause exceeds two per cent of their annual expenditure.  This is a very high hurdle indeed – and even then the help only extends to the spending over the two per cent threshhold.

When I got my chance to ask a question, this is what I said:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and a former leader of Haringey Council, where I spent about 12 years of my life trying to secure the sustainable regeneration of the area of Tottenham. One of the tragedies of what has happened in the past few days is that the stigma of an area of riot has again fallen on that community, and that the efforts built up over many years are now being undermined, with businesses no longer being able to survive.

Do the Government believe that the Bellwin formula will be a sufficient response to ensure the reconstruction that will be needed? This will be of communities after the damage that has been done, and must also tackle underlying problems. Will they review the resources being made available to local government for regeneration in such areas? Will they also review the way in which the Riot (Damages) Act operates? If it would drain funds from police forces to compensate people who have been hit and damaged by the riots, that would be extremely damaging to the sustaining of police numbers in future. Finally, what advice was taken from the police service about the decision that water cannon should be made available on the mainland? It is used usually for the dispersal of large crowds, but the problem in this case was caused by small groups of people acting opportunistically.”

The point about the Riot (Damages) Act is important because it means that compensation to individuals or businesses adversely affected by a riot has to be paid from the police budget – so budgets already cut as a result of Government policy will be drained further to pay compensation.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s soundbite about water cannon.  Water cannon have been used in Northern Ireland – not without controversy – but their effectiveness is in dispersing large hostile crowds.  The problems that there have been with looters in London and other cities have been with small opportunistic groups.  They are already dispersed.  Water cannon would not help deal with such small fast-moving groups.

This – like the soundbite about authorising the use of plastic bullets or baton rounds – seems to be more about pandering to excitable back-bench Tory MPs rather than addressing the serious issues that affect our cities.

Am I surprised?

Well, no ….

House of Lords to be recalled tomorrow after all – was it something I said?

Yesterday, I reported that, despite what the Prime Minister had said, Parliament was not being recalled – only the House of Commons.  Apparently, the Leader of the House of Lords had not seen the need for the Upper House to be recalled.

Overnight, there was a change of heart and this morning it was announced that the House of Lords would after all sit at noon tomorrow.

Was it something I said?

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Parliament is NOT being recalled – only the House of Commons

Earlier today the Prime Minister announced that Parliament was being recalled on Thursday to discuss the disturbances in London and elsewhere.

It turns out that this is not true. 

Only the House of Commons is being recalled.  Unusually, the House of Lords is not going to be sitting as well. 

Apparently, Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, Leader of the House of Lords, was not keen ……

Identifying the looters and rioters – do you know these people?

The violent scenes in London in the last few days have been appalling and shocking.  There can be no excuse for the violence and vandalism.  In some cases, this will force the closure of the small businesses that have been targetted.  And the stigma and blight that will fall on some areas of the capital will make it even more difficult for local councils trying to strengthen and build sustainable local economies in the most deprived areas of our city.

The immediate task is, of course, to restore order to our streets.  And as part of this, the Metropolitan Police has started to put on line photographs of those suspected of being involved in some of the disorder and looting.  These hooligans need to be brought to justice.  So, do you know any of these people?

West Norwood




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