David Cameron should be proud of himself, it took Margaret Thatcher two years before her government faced rioting and yet his policies to throw us back into some Edwardian-style society and shut off opportunity for all of those people who are not already in the elite he moves in, meant he had his first riot just six months after coming to power. In addition, it was a political riot, one directed at the policies of the government, rather than, as with many riots in 1981, focused on local friction with police behaviour. The riot was not extensive, only 56,000 people (150% more than had been expected), primarily students protesting about the raising of fees for the young people reaching university age in the next few years. It was primarily focused on the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank in central London. There were acts of vandalism and rioters got on to the roof of the building. However, overall 14 people a mix of rioters and police were hospitalised and 35 people arrested, which is very small scale compared to riots in London of the 1980s and 1990s. However, this may be just the beginning.
Interestingly, in contrast to the G20 protest last year, at which the police went in very forcefully and murdered a passerby, and even when compared to the original round of protests against student loans, famously in 1989 with mounted police riding down student protestors, some of whom later showed the hoof marks on their shins when they had been trampled by the horses and images of students being clubbed by batons, the police response was very low key. This has angered Conservative Party members as there was no police protection of their headquarters as the focus had been on the nearby headquarters of their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. I imagine this was due to the earlier protests outside the house of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. Police have been criticised for under-estimating the scale of the disorder and not bringing in a large enough force. They had, however, protected Whitehall ministerial buildings, which in the past have been a target.
I think there are a number of reasons for the nature of the response. First, the weather was terrible on the days either side of the riot, Wednesday 10th November. If it had been as bad that day I doubt we would have seen even 20,000 protestors and it is unlikely rioting would have started. However, it was sunny and dry. There is a clear correlation in the UK between good weather and rioting. The second thing is, after the criticisms the police received after the murder of Ian Tomlinson (a passerby not even a protestor) by a police officer during the G20 protests in April 2009, they are probably a little more careful and the aggressive policy of hunting out the protestors and breaking them up or even 'kettling' them was avoided. Perhaps the police saw students as being 'different' to the G20 protestors, though the bulk of them were ordinary people, not revolutionaries. On Wednesday the police reacted rather than being proactive. However, I think, at the next large scale protest they will being encouraged by Home Secretary Theresa May, who in effect, unlike with other constabularies in the UK, heads the Metropolitan Police, to take a more aggressive line and certainly to put a ring of officers around the Conservative Party headquarters.
There is another more mischievous explanation for the Metropolitan Police's reaction, particularly in leaving Conservative Party headquarters unprotected. On 20th October the government announced cuts of 20% in the police budget. I have not seen the figures for the reduction this is likely to mean for the size of the Metropolitan Police, but we can make some estimate from looking at other constabularies. The Greater Manchester Police employ just over 13,000 staff (this includes all uniformed and plain clothes police and all civilian workers in the constabulary), the West Midlands Police, almost the same. These two constabularies reckon they will have to shed 3,100 and 2,100 employees respectively, i.e. between 16%-24% of their workforce. Not all the losses will be uniformed officers, but some will have to be. If the same ratio of job losses is applied to the Metropolitan Police with a little over 52,000 employees then it means laying off something between 8,300 - 12,500 employees. Given that it is argued that Britain continues to face potential terrorist attacks which most likely would target London and with the crime rate always rising as unemployment climbs as it is at present, you can see why the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, might feel that it is the worst time to be cutting the police service so severely.
Thus, perhaps next time there is the risk of a riot, the Metropolitan Police will say, 'well we would love to be able to protect Conservative Party headquarters' but unfortunately the cut-backs mean we cannot spare the officers to do so'. This shows how the government's widespread cuts hitting at all parts of public service, are to a degree politicising sections of that service which normally would never come close to protesting. The last time the UK had a police strike was in 1918, but it seems we may be on the path to another one. Firefighters have struck more often, but usually on a localised basis, but already, only six months into Cameron regime we are seeing strikes of the nature that the Labour government of 1974-9 only experienced in its closing months.
Now, looking beyond the immediate issues of the likelihood of more rioting and the challenges for the police in dealing with it, are there bigger political moves behind all this? Of course, we know from the early 1980s, groups such as the Socialist Workers' Party (and back then Militant Tendency) believe that a revolution will only come about when the bulk of the population, even those who typically cannot tear themselves away from watching 'The X Factor' to even answer the door, are so angry with the government that they strike and riot. I have always felt this was a delusional policy, the British are far too passive a bunch ever to even protest on the scale we have seen in France over the past two months, let alone something more active. British society is incredibly divided and people tend to blame others on their level or specific groups like students, the unemployed, single mothers, immigrants, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, gay people, people from the North/the South/Scotland/Ireland rather than the government. We have already seen the rumblings of race rioting which was another aspect of the 1970s and 1980s (and the 1950s and the 1910s...).
What I think is more likely is that there will be a counter-reaction by the state. A riot on the scale of the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 would play right into David Cameron's hands; it would be what the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks were for George W. Bush, they gave him carte blanche to strip citizens of so many civil liberties. Cameron in many ways takes the policies of Margaret Thatcher and drives them in harder and faster. So, as Thatcher used the rhetoric of 'the enemy within' applied by dictators commonly to Jews, Socialists, Communists, also Catholics and Freemasons, and during the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 allowed police to pick up people driving around London simply on the suspicion that they were going to attend a coal mine rally, I can see this coming with Cameron, but even more harshly. I have often commented how Tony Blair's govenment steadily eroded civil liberties in the UK. Blair is the link in the chain between Thatcher and Cameron, advancing their agenda rather than reversing it; Major and Brown were barely hiccoughs in that process. If Cameron cannot fund a larger police force, then he will use legislation, he will encourage the public to inform on their neighbours (something we have been encouraged to do for a number of years now) and given the restriction on prison spaces, other limits to personal freedom will be introduced.
A sub-headline on 'The Guardian' frontpage of Thursday said 'Both sides warn of 'more to come''. Already 'sides' are being outlined. Winter is not the time for rioting, but come April and beyond, especially if there is a hot summer, then I think we will see disturbances that will make 1981 look tranquil in comparison, partly because this government has unsettled not only those usually at odds with the state, but also very quickly, those like the police and firefighters, who generally we loyal to the state but now feel they are being stabbed in the back. The government reaction, with the ground so well prepared by Blair, will be harsh, and with the cutbacks, will probably have to involve the military. I do not think Cameron is an idiot, he may be evil, but no fool. He must know that you cannot destroy the hopes of so many people and expect them to accept it passively. Thus, I believe, as Thatcher prepared well in advance for the Miners' Strike, he is readying to oppose civil unrest and use the opportunity to suppress civil liberties that little bit further. He believes he is right, because, as I increasingly believe with every passing day, he is bent on reshaping British society to something resembling the fixed hierarchical model of a hundred years or more in the past.