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August 24, 2011

A poverty of leadership

One of the more thoughtful observations on the handling of the riots came from Guardian’s Simon Jenkins.  He points to the complete absence of any credible local leadership – elected or otherwise –  prepared to step forward and speak on behalf of their communities.  Instead, Government ministers and the country’s most senior police chiefs had to ‘be seen’ to take charge.  He argues that this ‘nationalisation’ of the riots reflects a much deeper problem

A poverty of leadership

When Theresa May went on radio to say what she would do about the riots, she never mentioned any local name, or civic leadership of any kind.

Outsiders witnessing the urban riots this week could be forgiven for assuming that Britain’s cities were now run by the police and the home secretary. There may be municipal councils and in London an elected mayor, but they are nowhere to be seen to be in control. They have no real power and therefore little or no public status as civic leaders. At the front line are the police, and behind them only the central power of the state.

The “nationalisation” of the riots by the home secretary and the prime minister inevitably inclined government to overreact. Ministers and opposition leaders raced back from holiday, parliament was summoned and sports fixtures cancelled. If ministers had wanted to induce a sense of panic, they could hardly have done better. Yet below them is only a vacuum of authority and accountability.

In New York or Berlin or Barcelona we would have seen command taken by powerful mayors, and indeed subordinate mayors and precinct captains for subdivisions of the city. They regularly summon gangs and community leaders and knock heads together. When the home secretary, Theresa May, went on radio this to say what she would do about the riots, she never mentioned any local name, or civic leadership of any sort.

She certainly failed to name London’s high-profile but low-octane Boris Johnson, who is closest to having responsibility for policing the capital. She was clearly the boss and had no intention of sharing her status or authority. In the nicest possible sense, Britain presented itself to the world as a police state.

The riots shared with this week’s other big story – the renewed economic slump – the quality of being ostensibly inexplicable. The catalyst was a march to protest another instance of the wild use of firearms by London’s police. But this was a mere excuse. No one has been able to divine what the riots were “about”, beyond a chance for increasingly powerful street gangs to play hell, and grab a quantity of merchandise.

Comment abhors banality and the smashed windows and fires that consumed a few London streets have had to be awarded deeper significance. London’s Burning, cried the headlines. It was anarchy, yob rule. The increasingly tabloid BBC compared Croydon with Belfast’s Falls Road, taunting the government to bring in troops, so as to make it seem weak for not doing so. The parallel drawn between a fractured Irish community and London’s suburban opportunists was hyperbole and media hysteria.

Reporters who have covered England’s history of street disturbances recite the familiar grievances: poor housing, sink schools, drugs, weapons, gangs. While these phenomena may explain many forms of crime, my attendance at some of these occasions made me aware of the sheer momentum of a mob sensing a licence for an orgy of destructive mischief. It is sheer urban machismo.

In New York and Chicago, remarkably free of riots, the reason for order is customarily put down to the dominance of local political control, to the precincts described by Barack Obama in his memoir as forming a curb on the gang culture. Parents, neighbours or businesses in trouble turn not to the police but to elected or self-appointed community leaders for redress. Such neighbourhoods police themselves, often very effectively.

Similarly while some European cities have had riot trouble, notably the suburbs of Paris, most are run under a regime of strong civic leadership. Whatever happens – a crash, a murder, a celebration – some locally elected leader steps forward to embody the locality..

At a time of crisis the TV stage is taken by a police officer and central government minister. Councils are run by enfeebled party machines and their “leaders” are politicians whose means of selection and election gives first loyalty to party rather than community. They feel no obligation to public leadership. Suggest to a council leader that he stand for direct election without the carapace of party, and he shudders at the thought. These figureheads are mere agents, factotums, of central government. The only local elected politicians noticeable this week were MPs such as David Lammy and Diane Abbott; but they are national parliamentarians who have become de facto local mayors to their constituents.

The hapless head of the Metropolitan Police Authority, Kit Malthouse, is supposedly in charge of London’s constabulary. He has been totally upstaged by May and now by David Cameron himself. They met in Cobra committee, with the palpable intention of delving into the details of operational riot control. This is not lawful. Operational matters are strictly for the London police commissioner, with the mayor and police authority having absolute responsibility for resources.

In the next few days the rioters will go home to count their winnings and a few will go to prison with magisterial bromides falling about their ears. Gang leaders, their street status vastly enhanced, will reflect on their successful grabbing of videos and headlines alike. The poor of urban England will clear up the mess. The right will deplore the “sheer criminality” of it all, and the left will explain it as the misguided manifestation of social grievance.

I am left more convinced than ever that urban communities cannot be ordered and disciplined by the police alone. No police force can handle not just crime but traffic control, antisocial behaviour, school truancy, gun licensing, paedophile registers, illegal immigration and housing fraud. It cannot hope to keep order on every street, protect every business and settle every domestic dispute. But then nor can Whitehall-ordained public services, now retreating ever further into centralised bureaucracy. Nor can “big society” charities, losing money and lacking accountability.

There is no substitute for proper, open, responsive democracy at any tier of government. There can be no localism without some discretion over taxation and resources. There can be no big society without a vote. Curing any community’s woes is not the job of the police. Leave it to them and trouble will simply recur.