Do mind the gap

Wanting to get rid of Assad is different from wanting to grab an Armani. London’s riots were about the failure to protect structures of respect that sustain any society. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2011 01:14 IST
Farrukh Dhondy
Farrukh Dhondy
Hindustan Times

In the British urban riots earlier this month, one chain store in the 50 ransacked High Streets (the equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi Roads in India) left unmolested was Waterstones. It sells books.

Allowing my liberal instincts to prevail I would see the looters, driven by poverty and discrimination, a bulwark against the cruel State and capitalism, denied education and knowledge, longing for the books that youths like Harry Potter read didn’t bother Waterstones because they are imbued with the kind of respect for printed matter which my grandmother had for the Parsi prayer book.

They sensibly looted shops selling £100 designer shoes and jeans, mobile phones, computers and TV sets. But having suppressed these liberal instincts I have to conclude that they didn’t want the books.

A section of the youth of Britain, in large measure blacks and the sub-class of whites, who choose criminality, dependence on state benefits and dissipation above work, were given the opportunity this week to make a risk-to-reward assessment.

Grab the status stuff you’ve always wanted as you can see that there’s a minimal risk of being caught and punished. These youths were aware of the scanty police presence on the streets.

After the second night of this Lootathon, the prime minister and home secretary cut short their holidays, returned to London and saw that the looters were confronted with three times the number of police patrolling the streets. They issued the threat that these police would have powers to use rubber bullets, water cannon, CS gas and any tough tactic necessary to deal with marauding and arson.

The streets quietened down. No buildings were set on fire. The looters stayed at home.

There are those who even now compare these British riots to the Arab Spring. Wanting to get rid of Assad is different from wanting to get hold of an Armani. For all their wishful thinking (and may peace be upon them), the only challenge to the British government from these riots is to induce them to reverse their decision to cut Home Office budgets for police forces by £2.7 billion.

That’s all this government will in the end do, leaving the longer-term analysis of the alienation of these mobs from British society and from their own communities to newspaper philosophers.

It is not difficult to see that a more robust police presence contains the problem but doesn’t address or solve it.

That the structures of respect that sustain society have been destroyed by growing inequality, by indulgence and through the capitalistic instinct to engender material cravings, to destroy British working communities in their quest for cheaper labour, to use controlled education as nothing but a means of disciplining and grading the labour force is all true.

A British Tory government — and indeed the Labour one that preceded it — have no imagination, leave aside ambition, to tackle such structural issues at the root. Like most governments in the West today they are trying to balance their books. One of the measures towards this balancing which this government mooted was the reduction of jail sentences for criminals who pleaded guilty.

The proposal didn’t play well with the public who were well aware that justice minister Ken Clark was not addressing any principle of fairness or trying to reduce crime but was attempting to save money on the prison budget, currently £1,000 a prisoner a week.

While it may be true that money spent on containing people in prisons could be spent on increasing and reorienting the police forces and thus reduce crime and the necessity to reduce prison sentences.

That remains for the government to debate and decide. What it did last month was abandon Clark’s proposal when there was an outcry against it, suffering a publicity defeat of some political consequence.

There is, however, one solution to this budget squeeze and problem of crime and punishment that it doesn’t take a Dostoevsky to spot, but one which Ken Clark and the entire cabinet have not considered. It is one with which I am not in sympathy but, if I were Clark, one I would consider as consistent with my party’s free-market policy.

I hand him the idea despite opposing it: Why not close all prisons in the country and, accepting the benefits of globalisation, outsource all British penal servitude?

There are no Australias left to which to ship convicts, but there are surely rugged countries in Central Asia, the Caribbean and Africa that would readily construct benign but disciplined jails for Britain’s offenders?

One could start perhaps with just the young who will perhaps reconsider and regret their naughty ways when under the tender loving care of say, Afghani or Haitian jailors who I am sure would enjoy contact with black and white British youths?

This would not only cut the prison budget it would contribute to Overseas Aid which today runs to £2.7 billion, the same sum the government intends to cut from the police budget. (Enough of lending my brain to the Tories!)

The most frightening aspect of the riots was not the burning buildings and looted shops, but the murders of three Asian men, of Pakistani descent, who were deliberately killed by a car while defending their shop from rioters in Birmingham.

The hit-and-run murderers were black and it is alleged that they were motivated to kill people who had formed this anti-riot vigilante community force.

Afro-Britons killing Muslim Britons in these circumstances is very likely to lead to retaliatory violence, though one prays, as the father of one of the murdered men publicly and with great dignity did, that good sense will prevail.

If it doesn’t, it could result in a black on brown race riot, a prospect fuelled by macho and mutual distrust. After all the looting and free-booting, that prospect should be Britain’s single nightmare.

(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Aug 21, 2011 21:16 IST