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Davis vs Goliath

The debate on what caused this summer’s rioting across England is becoming ill-tempered. Those on the political right say it’s all to do with broken families and criminality. The Left wants an introspection into inequality. Dipankar De Sarkar reports.

world Updated: Sep 06, 2011 23:56 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The debate on what caused this summer’s rioting across England is becoming ill-tempered. Those on the political right say it’s all to do with broken families and criminality. The Left wants an introspection into inequality.

More than 3,000 people have been arrested and 1,630 have appeared before courts. More than a thousand have been remanded in custody. Judges have handed out harsh sentences — a 23-year-old was given six months in jail for stealing a bottle of water worth £3.50.

So far, Prime Minister David Cameron has handled the aftermath well, prodding the judiciary and police into a swift response despite criticism of ‘excesses.’ But he lost his cool in an interview with BBC radio journalist Evan Davis last week.

Like Cameron, Davis went to Oxford University. Both read politics, philosophy and economics (PPE).

There the similarities must end. Cameron’s upper class background meant he went to Eton, the world’s most famous private school. Davis studied at a grammar school and after Oxford, earned a place at Harvard.

Davis suggested to David that the behaviour of the rioters may have been similar to that of members of the Bullingdon Club — the exclusive Oxford University dining club to which Cameron belonged. Its wealthy members are notorious for their outrageous behaviour, including smashing up restaurants.

“We all do stupid things when we are young and we should learn the lessons,” Cameron responded cautiously. But Davis persisted: did Cameron ever see his Bullingdon mates “throwing things through windows and smashing up restaurants?”

“No, I didn’t,” Cameron replied, before turning on Davis. “I might say that when you listen to the BBC, there is a sort of danger of trying to put all this into a great mush, and make that as an excuse for not acting. Some people almost say, well until we deal with the problems of inequality in our society there is nothing that you can do to deal with rioting.

“Well, that’s what it can slip into, Evan, if you are not careful.” In 1987, a nocturnal Bullingdonian expedition ended with a pot being thrown out of a restaurant. According to his biographer, Cameron had left by then but Boris Johnson, now London’s mayor, was arrested.

All of this could be dismissed as something out of the pages of a P.G. Wodehouse book. But the implications for riot suspects are grave.

Their criminal record can blot future ventures, including in education, work and travel — leave alone becoming mayor.