London riots comment: No politics today

The London riots have to be a moment of unity. It's too big, too important, for us all to fall into the usual bear pit.

By Ian Dunt

It's nearly one in the morning. A moment ago the newsreader breathlessly reported that a police station was set on fire in Birmingham. In a minute or two, a new development will overtake that in another part of the country or another part of London. It is chaos, the most genuine chaos we've ever seen here.

A moment ago, returning home from a walk around my area to report on what had happened, the true human effect of it hit me. As I walked past another man, dressed in nothing more off-putting than jeans and a T-shirt, we both glanced up at each other, suspicious and defensive. That glance is what it's cost us so far. It's increased the space between us.

London can be a cold, difficult city, and its inhabitants, like the British in general, are not particularly vocal about their love for it. We do not treat London as the Americans, say, treat New York. But everyone I know is fiercely proud of this city. Everyone who is from London – and you're from London whenever you choose to be – intensely loves this place. We love our city because of its extraordinary vigour, because we need to be somewhere vital and alive.

We all must accept, however, that we could have seen this coming. Not just Londoners – Britain could have seen this coming. We know what it is to walk past a threatening group of young kids, their hoods up and caps on, their body language jagged and aggressive. The easygoing label we attached to them, 'hoodies', serves to make it something you expect, something to giggle at on panel shows.

Somewhere along the line Britain became afraid of its children and we just did what we always do: we made jokes about it. It doesn't feel so funny anymore. The signs were there. Asbos, CCTV, shopping centres using mosquito alarms to disperse groups of children. Just because it erupted and has startled us all, let's not pretend the signs weren't there.

The actions were near-simultaneous because the idea did not need to spread. It is not an idea at all. It is a shared community which can't even formulate the language to describe itself, which didn't even know it existed until a few days ago.

Now we're all going to have to talk about it. The major events which hit us now are treated as automatic verifications of each individual's personal politics. It happened most recently with the massacre in Norway. Just this evening mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone made points which amounted to party political posturing. Ukip leader Nigel Farage and the BNP blamed multiculturalism. More than one right-wing columnist blamed family breakdown. An army of left-wingers blamed deprivation. Many of them also joined the right in calling for the army to come out on the streets.

The first thing we have to do is separate the valid ideas from the invalid ones. Blaming this on multiculturalism, for instance, is laughable and demonstrably false, as any Turkish man defending his shop with a stick tonight can tell you.

Then we must separate the arguments which are essentially tactical from those which are about the fundamental problems in our country. Neither the water cannon nor the army are off the table and we should all accept that. But we're not there yet. The most obvious solution is to absolutely drown major urban areas in police on Tuesday night. Anyone who has followed my writing in any capacity whatsoever will know that that is not the sort of thing I would ever usually write.

The conservative voices are correct. We need to have the harshest possible penalty for those involved in this disorder. We can't talk about why this happened without talking about family breakdown, lack of respect for others and lack of responsibility.

But we will also define ourselves by how we respond to this. We already have the powers to deal with this sort of situation. There is no need for new laws or macho posturing. The left has many answers. No-one with a career behaves this way. No-one who is invested in society would act like this. Only people with nothing to lose would do this.

This has to be a moment of unity. It's too big, too important, for us all to fall into our familiar bear pit. Today, there can be no politics. Right now, this is about how to stop it. Later, it will be about why it happened. And when that happens, everything is on the table. It's the most boring, but also the most accurate, thing we can possibly say: there is no single right answer. 

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