Nobody can fail to have been shaken and horrified by the sight of burning buildings and hooded youngsters looting shops or pelting police with stones and bottles on the streets of London and other major English cities. Facebook (and no doubt the Daily Mail) screamed advice from instant experts who have the solution to everything that we need the army on our streets.
There is no doubt that the police were overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the riots which have been over four nights so far. Last night, the numbers of police in London tripled with the result that things were quiet. Even Downing Street said that while there was “no complacency” police tactics in London had “clearly worked”. It’s so important to understand the dynamic of policing in the UK. Here we have consensus policing where people generally respect police and will provide information. Great Britain is still one of the handful of nations whose police don’t routinely carry firearms. The police work hard on community relations, admittedly not always successfully.
The army is trained completely differently and to deploy the army to tackle the London riots would have echoes of Northern Ireland. They are still a divided society in Northern Ireland and the police and army are still hated by large sections of that society. I salute the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere but I wonder if the ‘Help for Heroes’ charity would lose its shine if troops were fighting British people. None of the current generation of squaddies has any experience of riot control in Northern Ireland. Met Police and many other forces have full public order control training. History shows there were more deaths from baton rounds fired by soldiers than by police officers in Northern Ireland. As soon as you ask soldiers to do the job of the police, you raise the risk of serious problems substantially.
Again we look at history and the excesses of the British army. I won’t draw comparisons with the current slaughter of protesters in Syria by military forces or lesser excesses elsewhere in the Middle-East, as you will rightly say those people are genuine protesters unlike the mobs in London and elsewhere. But go back to 30th January 1972 when 26 people were shot dead in Derry on Bloody Sunday. Even in peaceful Wales, 100 years ago exactly on 19th August 1911, the army were called in to a railway strike in Llanelli and soldiers shot dead two innocent demonstrators. Further back in history, at an event that became known as the Peterloo Massacre, on 16th August 1819 at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. As a result 26 people were killed and 500 injured. I know our soldiers today are far better trained for military duty overseas but please don’t ask that they be forced to deal with British people in the same ways.
It’s clear that sheer numbers of police quickly stop problems and as in 1981, this period of disruption will quickly end. What is more worrying is that those most intent on communicating where mayhem is planned are bypassing Facebook and Twitter – which are publicly visible – to using Blackberry Messenger which is encrypted. It’s the choice of 37% of teens and one-to-many massages are easily transmitted to large groups.
Robert Peel who founded the Metroplitan Police in 1829 famously said, “The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence”
My strong feeling is that we need to get behind our police force (despite my reservations about some of their deeply entrenched attitudes), protest against the Government’s planned police budget cuts and keep the British army off England’s streets.