Riots are an argument for more civil liberties, not fewer

And so the post-mortem has begun. Now that the initial wave of rioting and looting appears to have subsided, the question of what can be done to prevent a repetition comes to the lips. David Cameron has come up with the, in our eyes rather feeble-minded, idea of restricting the use of social networks during riots. In other quarters, there are numerous rumblings about rescinding police budget cuts that could take 1,800 officers off the streets of London. Our concern is that the rioting, deplorable though it undoubtedly is, will become a hook on which to hang ever-greater authoritarianism and control. Not a prospect we find appealing, as we’re less than excited by the prospect of living in a police state.

With the twisted logic apparently so beloved of politicians, at least one has already called for greater access to CCTV cameras. Rather than contemplate the fact that the UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any other country in the world, reach the reasonable conclusion that it hasn’t done a great job of preventing civil disorder, and seek to divert resources elsewhere, the rationale seems to be simply that if it’s not working, we need more.

The same rationale could very easily be applied to police presence. On the one hand, the recent riots could be considered a bit of a high point for them. After the recent resignations of Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates, a frightened public was probably more police-positive in the past week than it’s been for some time.

Nonetheless, their very necessary intervention is not a reason to lurch ever further towards authoritarianism. Fearful populace + dangerous streets = perfect excuse to start closing society down. It’s not a pretty picture, and it neglects the structural causes of rioting, pretty much guaranteeing that disorder and violence will intensify. If we’re going to get to grips with those causes (massive income inequality seems like a good starting point), we need more openness, more discussion, a freer flow of ideas. The very antithesis of simply condemning the perpetrators and pouring on the rhetoric. The trouble is, some of those ideas might look very much like squeezing the people at the top, rather than those at the bottom.

There have already been some heartening examples of communities around London coming together to clean up the aftermath of the destruction (you might remember the hashtag #riotcleanup before you advocate restricting Twitter, Mr. Cameron), demonstrating that if there is a Big Society in this country, then it’s not because Dave says there is. We need to ensure that it keeps getting bigger, because the only other possibility is that it becomes dangerously smaller.

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