As Britain digests the extent and consequences of the violence seen across its streets in the past few days, John Humphrys explores the theories behind it, and asks what the Government should do now

The violence that has engulfed many of Britain’s cities over recent days and nights may not mean that the Revolution is about to break out, but it has been ferocious enough to shake the established order. The police have, at least temporarily, been overwhelmed; politicians have had to fly back from their holidays; Parliament has been recalled and the public has been startled by the suddenness with which the peace of the summer has been broken by rioting, looting and the wholesale breakdown of public order. Revolution it may not be, but anarchy is what the media has deemed it to be. What’s caused it? And what can be done to contain it and prevent it happening again?

The trigger for the violence which began in Tottenham last Saturday night was a protest against the shooting by the police of a 29-year-old father of four, Mark Duggan. The failure of the police to contain the protest seems to have led to the realisation that the police had lost control and that the streets now belonged to anyone who wanted to seize the opportunity. Youngsters with a long-standing animosity towards the police took it. They went on the rampage we all saw on our television screens.

Those images encouraged others and the use of social networking sites enabled gangs of hooded, masked youths to gather swiftly all over London, overwhelming the police and claiming the streets for themselves. No longer remotely connected to any protest about the shooting by the police of a single civilian, it was now all about looting – smashing into stores to grab what could be carried away and then torching them once they were empty.

For three nights this was the story of London and then it spread. Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and many other cities saw copycat rioting, looting and violence, even murder. Only on Tuesday night did relative peace return to London streets as a result of a massive increase in the police presence in the capital.

Why have young people (and not so young) been behaving like this? There is no clear answer but no shortage of suggestions either. One view sees the origin of the problem in the breakdown in relations between the police and youth, especially black youth. On this account what happened initially in Tottenham was always waiting to happen. It’s claimed there is, in effect, a stand-off war between the police and certain sections of black youth and when the youth sees its chance to gain the upper hand, however temporarily, it takes it. On this account, things won’t improve until the police get off the backs of young black men.

Whatever truth there may or may not be in this explanation, however, it does not account for the fact that much of the subsequent rioting involved white and Asian youths, as well as young blacks. One explanation of why this much broader group should have gone on the rampage is that those young people in it have no stake in society. Its members have no qualifications, no jobs and no prospects. But they live in a society in which both happiness and status are measured in material terms. It’s bankers and those with lots of money who have the good life. So if these young people can’t earn the money to buy the stuff which alone can give them a standing in life, they will seize every opportunity to nick it instead. Rioting is the perfect way to do it because of the protection in numbers. It’s the logic of gang membership writ large.

On this account, the solution lies in finding ways of providing such young people with the means to get the stake in society they lack. That means education, training, more jobs and so on. Instead, the current generation is faced with a stagnant economy and ‘cuts’.

Sceptics, however, see this as a very tired old analysis. After all, they say, governments of all parties have been trying to find ways of doing this for donkeys years without making much appreciable progress. As for the cuts, they argue, they haven’t really bitten yet so they can hardly be blamed for this recent bout of anarchy.

In the eyes of people who take this view, the problem is much more deep-seated. In a nutshell their case is that we are breeding large numbers of young people with no sense of responsibility and no constraints of conscience on what they can and cannot do. This is what David Cameron seems to believe. 'There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but are frankly sick.' He cited the fact that during the rioting twelve and thirteen year-olds had been seen 'looting and laughing'.

Those who take this view see the cause of the problem, at least in part, as the breakdown of the family and especially the absence, in many cases, of father figures to impose discipline upon and provide an example to, boys and adolescents. If ten-year-olds are out on the streets breaking into shops, it can only be because there is no father at home to keep them in. How politicians can do anything about this problem, however, remains a mystery. Some people suggest that some form of national service needs to be brought back, simply to instil the sense of discipline that much family life in Britain today seems to have failed to impart.

To many people, these sorts of analyses may be interesting in their way, but they are never going to provide the sort of answers which can prevent the anarchy of recent days recurring again and again. On this view, those who participated in the rioting and looting do not need to be defined in any other way than as thugs. And the only way to deal with thugs is to make them too fearful to do what otherwise thugs will always do.

That means using the power of the state to bear down on them. Traditionally, as the Home Secretary repeated this week, British policing has operated on the principle of consent. But it’s clear, say her critics, that there is no basis of consent between the police and the thugs who have been running amok in our cities. So the police need to get tougher.

That is what the Prime Minister seems now to believe too. On Wednesday he announced that the police could use plastic bullets if they felt them to be necessary and that the use of water cannons, hitherto restricted to Northern Ireland, would be possible in mainland Britain as well.

Most of all, however, this approach to the problem needs a larger and more visible police presence, of the sort that restored relative calm to London’s streets on Tuesday night. That was made possible only by drafting in officers from police forces outside London.

The problem is that, as many of the Government's critics argue, the planned cut of 20% in the police budget, which will see 16,000 fewer police officers in Britain, does the exact opposite of what’s needed not only to restore but to maintain the safety of our cities. That’s the view of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who has asked the Government to think again.

So far the Government is resisting. It argues that by transferring police officers from back office duties to the front line it will be possible both to make the financial cuts and to ensure, in the Prime Minister’s words, that there will be 'no reduction in visible policing'.

It is on that claim, as much as on the other explanations of why we have been enduring this sudden outbreak of anarchy, that the political arguments of the coming months will focus.

What’s your view?

  • Why do you think we have seen this outbreak of anarchy?
  • What do you make of the various explanations summarised above?
  • Do you think that an alleged breakdown in relations between the police and many young people, especially black youths, is responsible for the violence we have seen?
  • Do you share the view or not that the lack of a stake in society is what has led many young people to riot and loot and, if so, what do you think can be done about it?
  • Do you agree or not with David Cameron that pockets of society are ‘sick’?
  • Do you think there is a failure in the way many young people are brought up and do you think anything can be done about it?
  • Should we bring back national service?
  • Do we need tougher policing or not?
  • And should the Government abandon its plans to cut police budgets or not?
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