Friday, August 12, 2011

The fact that politicians chose to come back is an irrelevance

This rather damning quote from Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, is one of a number of refutations to statements made by Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May among others. In the aftermath of the 'riots' in London, Birmingham, Salford and Manchester (and elsewhere), the media are now focusing on the question of responsibility. Was the situation handled well, or at least in the best way possible in the circumstances, or badly and inappropriately given the scale of the problem. The fact that most politicians were on holiday was presented as a void, the return of the prime minister, recall of parliament and appearance of Mayor of London Boris Johnson on the ground was argued to fill the void. The strident language of senior politicians presented as a way of characterising the nation's response to the events. Cameron has ever attempted to speak for the people, to synthesise public emotions and attitudes and give them rhetorical voice. The frequently repeated lines from government talk of criminality, thuggery etc, not revolt or riot, thus the core criticism of the police is that their response was based on dealing with public disturbance and not crime. Cameron's statement, however, puts him at odds with the police who in effect are leading operations.

The argument is being presented in a way that suggests Cameron's return gave the necessary leadership that ended the disorder. The police only acted appropriately after his return, this gives him significant political capital. However, the refutations undermine that capital. It can be perceived as a political manoeuvre. The word 'irrelevance' is key to this. Whether the argument will run and run is a question, certainly with the context of cuts to police funding there is a chance that the police themselves will use the events of the last few days as an argument for retaining current funding if not more. If the police are able to demonstrate it was their leadership and not that of Cameron, and that he is trying to take the plaudits on their behalf, it could damage his reputation. It is after all a matter of trust. Whose version of events to we accept? Who has the credibility? One could suggest that Cameron would be well advised not to mess with the police and be seen as backing them not questioning them within the current climate.