Wednesday, 17 August 2011

(Not) Book Burning

For ten days the nation has watched horrified as a lawless mob has run riot in all corners of the media, ransacking history, looting sociological and political theories, and jumping every bandwagon that passes. What motivates this lost generation of would-be opinion-formers? Is it a desire to find meaning in their deprived lives? Or simply opportunistic sloganeering?

There's nothing like a few nights of civil disorder to bring out politicians and commentators in their true colours. Explanations for the street violence of last week have ranged from Ken Livingstone's shameless electioneering through to David Starkey's denunciation of Jamaican patois. David Cameron talks of a 'slow motion moral collapse' (surely not long before he blames it on the liberal 1960s), while Ed Miliband suggests that - in the absence of any ideas of his own - we should listen to the people.

My own favourite interpretation came courtesy of a 16-year-old girl from Moss Side in Manchester, who was interviewed on Radio Five Live on Sunday morning. She had no doubt that it was all down to the government cuts: there is apparently nothing for young people to do these days, now that the councils are closing down youth centres and libraries.

Libraries? Oh yes. And perhaps that explains one of the curious features of the looting: the way that every major shopping chain got hit with the notable exception of Waterstone's. Some had argued that this omission reflected the fact that the mobs included a large number of the functionally illiterate. Others - of a more positive frame of mind - believed that the rioters were of the Kindle-generation and had no time for conventional bookstores.

But now it turns out to be simply a reverence for the printed word. Nurtured by public libraries, even the most violent of our youth have no wish to inflict damage on the repositories of civilisation.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Quote for the Week 4

'The policy is this: cut resources by ten per cent, increase detection rates by ten per cent.'
A senior officer explains the policing policy of a Conservative government in Andrew Payne's Pie in the Sky, 1996.

Thursday, 11 August 2011


This afternoon I watched most of the House of Commons debate on the civil disorder earlier in the week. I'm not sure we got very far - lots of indignation and few concrete proposals. Which is just as well really: the Commons isn't the place for instant wisdom, and as a country we're probably better off with MPs offering platitudes than policies at this stage.

But there's something a bit odd about watching a procession of Labour MPs demanding that the government reverse its proposed cuts to police funding. This, of course, echoes the policy pursued by Margaret Thatcher in her early years; while all other expenditure was squeezed, police pay was increased, an approach that paid dividends when her government wanted tough action taken against dissent.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the Labour Party stealing Tory clothes, if it seems appropriate, but there's a pattern emerging with this and other Labour arguments over the last twelve months: a straightforward objection to any cuts to any area of public spending. And that's reminiscent of another aspect of the 1980s. The Labour Party back then exhausted itself with defending the status quo in the face of Thatcherite reforms, opposing each and every government policy until such time as it proved to be popular. In the process the party managed to look both hidebound and opportunistic at the same time.

Worryingly, it looks as though Ed Miliband is pursuing the same course. And I suspect it'll have the same limited effect. Anyone who's come into contact with, say, their local council over the last decade knows that public services haven't exactly been perfect. Similarly the performance of the police this week - before the cuts - hasn't been spectacularly effective.

There is surely scope for advocating some change, without having to accept the Tories' options. At the moment, David Cameron's accusation, directed this afternoon against a backbench Labour MP, of being 'intellectually idle' seems all too accurate.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Quote for the Week 3

'The thing I am proudest of is that I managed to handle the riots in 1981 without being forced to take more repressive measures.'
William Whitelaw, reflecting on his time as home secretary in The Whitelaw Memoirs, 1989

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Riotous Times

I remember one Sunday night back in October 1985 listening to LBC radio as residents of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham phoned in, providing a running commentary on the riot that was exploding all around them. In a time before rolling news, let alone the Internet, this was a gripping novelty - instant reportage from the front-line, unmediated by journalists and official spokespeople.

Last night rioting again broke out in Tottenham, and I found myself tuning into not LBC but Radio Five Live. And there was Stephen Nolan, wallowing in concern whilst worrying about a caller saying 'Shit!' as a bus burst into flames. But it wasn't quite the same. Because the radio was very much the poor relation when there was also live coverage on Sky News and BBC News to be consumed. And, boy, did the television have fun - hour after hour of footage of the street with nothing much happening, while experts and commentators gave us the benefit of their opinions.

The best bit was the emollient police commander who took time off from operational matters to reassure us that everything would be okay. He baulked at the word 'riot', preferring to talk about the 'distressing scenes', and insisted that the disorder wouldn't be allowed to continue any longer than was strictly 'necessary'. Whatever the reality of policing on the streets, the PR operation has got much slicker since the 1980s.

So too have the politicians. The MP for Tottenham is David Lammy, who now thunders against the rioting last night: 'This is a disgrace. This must stop. This is an attack on Tottenham, on ordinary people.'

And one can't help remembering the late Bernie Grant, leader of Haringey Council at the time of the Broadwater Farm riots. He it was who pointed out the obvious truths: 'The youths around here believe that the police were to blame for what happened on Sunday night and what they got was a bloody good hiding.' And, he added, sometimes violence was an effective shortcut to attracting the attention of national politicians: 'Had it not been for the disturbances, they would never have heard of the estate and never have visited Tottenham.'

Those comments were enough to turn him into a media hate figure, perhaps best summed up a few years later by Richard Littlejohn, who was by then a presenter on LBC whilst Grant himself had become an MP: 'I don't hate Bernie Grant because he's black. I hate him because he's a cunt.'

That was in 1993, as opinion began to take over from news. The media's changed as well, then.

Transcript of an Interview

The excellent Kerensa Bryant, aka Geek Girl, who interviewed me last week for The Geekend on Radio Reverb has put a transcript of our conversation online. My thanks to her for that and for talking with me in the first place.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Our Harold

I'm always slightly disconcerted on the rare occasions when someone asks me to sign a copy of one of my books. Partly because I have such a rubbish signature, but mostly because I'm not the subject of the books - I'm just writing about other people who did things, and really you need to get those people to sign instead of me.

On the other hand, I do like having signed copies of other people's books. I'm particularly proud of a signed copy of Jonathan Aitken's first book and a copy of a Bruce Lee biography signed by his widow.

But they're as nothing compared to the volume which my friend Brian Freeborn has just given me: a first edition of The Labour Government 1964-1970 signed by Harold Wilson himself:

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Quote for the Week 2

'Police stations serve many admirable and necessary purposes, but they aren't places to keep secrets.'
Tony Blair, A Journey, 2010