Commentary Magazine


Paying a Political Price in Great Britain

There have been many eloquent attempts to mine the cause of the British riots in the deepest recesses of the British national character. Whatever flaws may be exposed in the state of contemporary Britain, to my mind the reason why the riots have raged of control is fairly straightforward. It is the reason why nearly all riots occur: a failure of effective, aggressive policing. To understand what I’m talking about, simply compare the ongoing British riots with the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and the Crown Heights (New York) riots of 1991.

In each case there was a proximate cause for the explosion: In Los Angeles, the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King; in New York, the death of an African-American child in an accident caused by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew; in London, the shooting death of a black criminal suspect named Mark Duggan at the hands of Metropolitan Police officers. In each instance, too, the headline event tapped into deeper discontent in aggrieved, marginalized communities. But–and this is the critical point–that discontent would not have resulted in out-of-control rioting if the police had stepped in firmly and massively to restore order at the start. They did not. In all three cases, the police response was half-hearted and delayed, thus allowing the disorder to build on itself. When young men see other young men running riot through the streets, breaking shop windows and helping themselves to whatever is inside, they will make a quick cost-benefit calculation: is it worth it to join in? If the police are largely absent from the streets, the decision is a no brainer. Only the probability of arrest will curb their runaway id.

Clearly, the current crisis has revealed–even more than the furor over tabloids tapping voicemails–the utter failure of Scotland Yard, just as the previous crises revealed the failure of the LAPD and NYPD.  Both the New York and Los Angeles departments were subsequently reformed, thanks in part to the work of William Bratton, who served as police chief in both cities. He would obviously be a good choice to head Scotland Yard now.

But, it takes more than effective leadership to make a police department effective. It also requires the necessary resources to blanket the streets. In this regard, the British police have been failed by their prime minister, David Cameron, who has rammed through a 6 percent cut in police funding which is likely to lead to the loss of more than 16,000 officers by 2015: cutbacks the prime minister stubbornly refuses to reconsider even as disorder rampages across the land.

There is an analogy here with how Cameron has handled defense spending: Here too, he has cut to the bone, and yet somehow he expects the British armed forces to meet all of their existing commitments–including a new war in Libya.

Something doesn’t add up here. The British experience should serve as a cautionary tale for budget-cutters in Washington: Tempting as it may be to take money away from the police or the armed forces, there is no price too high to be paid for public safety. And when the police or armed services are seen to fail in part because of budget cuts, it is the budget cutters who will pay a political price.