How to recover Britain’s streets for civilization

As someone who was a young journalist the last time a wave of disorder swept through the country, I am struck by a great change that has taken place. Contrary to what you may have read, this change is not that violence has increased. It was in 1981 that horrible things like attacking fire engines, trying to kill policemen and using riot as a cover for mass looting first showed themselves in mainland Britain. Although the technology is different today, allowing the criminals to bring trouble to more places, the ferocity of violence has been, if anything, slightly less bad than in Brixton or Toxteth 30 years ago.

No, the difference lies in public attitudes to what has happened. This time, the attitudes are much better. Then as now, of course, most ordinary citizens were unequivocal in their disgust at rioting. But in 1981, the prevailing culture among our ruling elites was different. The weight of the BBC, local government, trade unions, officialdom, came down on the police for being too harsh, and, needless to say, on the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, for the same crime. The chairman of the Merseyside Police Authority supported the rioters, saying: “They would be apathetic fools if they didn’t protest.”…

We all saw the police hanging back from making arrests during this week’s troubles. The reason is that, under current rules, arrests are a bureaucratic and legal nightmare. They require at least two officers and inordinate processing time. If there is “insufficient evidence”, the police can be sued for false imprisonment. The scenes all over England this week were uniquely appalling in their scale, but in the character of the police response they were very like what happens in hundreds of towns every Saturday night. Young people tip out of the pubs behaving badly, and the police, worried by what they might be accused of, just watch them. It is visible proof of the old saying that for evil to triumph it is necessary only for good men to do nothing.