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This violence has dented Britain's global reputation

August 10, 2011 10:01 IST

Dr Harsh V Pant, who teaches at King's College, London, on the riots and their likely impact for Britain as it prepares to stage next year's Olympics.

After three nights of rioting, London's cities were relatively calm last night as Britain's political establishment and the larger society tries to come to terms with some of the worst violence their nation has seen in recent times.

The unprecedented violence in London and now beyond pose one of the biggest political challenges for the coalition government headed by Prime Minister, David Cameron. They also raise a whole host of questions about the way Scotland Yard has handled the situation so far.

The rioting was triggered by the fatal police shooting of a black resident of North London last week. But by Tuesday unrest had spread as far as Salford adjacent to the northwestern city of Manchester and West Bromwich in the English Midlands.

Meanwhile, in central London, the police was out in full force in an attempt to cow potential looters and reassure their potential targets. Yet the businesses were wary and shuttered their premises earlier than normal. And then later in the evening reports came that rioters had set fire to a large clothing store in the centre of Manchester city, suggesting that the measures taken in the capital city -- drawing in extra officers from neighbouring police forces to boost the presence on metropolitan streets -- had not completely averted a fourth night of challenges in some parts of the country.

Facing a critical situation, Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to abandon his holiday and return back to London to take charge of a situation that many thought was getting out of hand. Cameron promptly pledged that an additional 10,000 police officers would be deployed on the streets of London and he recalled the House of Commons in an emergency session to discuss the riots. His aim was to restore some measure of authority and control over a situation that many were beginning to term as anarchy.

In order to counter public rage at what many perceive as an indecisive official response to the violence, the prime minister toured Croydon, one of the worst-hit areas, and was shown on television accompanied by police officers outside burned-out buildings.

The government is feeling the rage of the masses. In Birmingham, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was given a hostile reception from young people who shouted 'Go home!' as he visited a shopping area, forcing him to cut short his stay. When London's Mayor Boris Johnson visited Clapham in south London on Tuesday after interrupting his vacation, people harangued him on the street and remained unimpressed by his assurances that rioters would 'face punishment they will bitterly regret.'

It is not good for any government to be seen as losing control of the streets and for a Conservative government that boasts of its strong credentials on law and order this is particularly problematic.

No doubt, the prime minister had strong words for the rioters, making it clear that 'This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated.' He went on suggest that he had 'this very clear message to those people who are responsible for this wrongdoing and criminality: You will feel the full force of the law and if you are old enough to commit these crimes you are old enough to face the punishment.'

Meanwhile, there is a silent anger growing at the way the Metropolitan Police has handled the situation too. Stung by public outrage and political anger, the Metropolitan Police cancelled all leave and flooded London with 16,000 officers even as it promised tougher tactics including use of plastic bullets for the first time on the British mainland in a belated bid to reclaim the streets.

It is also suggesting that water cannons, curfews and the use of troops will be considered if violence continues, while armoured vehicles have been deployed in west and south London. It remains to be seen if this would be enough to assuage public anger at the police's apparent ineffectual performance and a lack of robustness in its response.

Meanwhile, a debate has started raging on the causes of the riots. Though many are blaming the growing socio-economic inequalities in Britain apparently exacerbated by the austerity measures undertaken by the Cameron government for the recent events, the consensus seems to be that the majority of the rioters are thugs and that the anarchical environment that emerged as the police ceded control of the streets to the criminals has allowed those who are observing crimes taking place in other parts of the country to take advantage of the opportunity to commit copycat crimes themselves.

The breakdown in the family structure in large sections of British society and the lack of discipline in young Britons is also being looked at once again as the underlying reasons for growing criminality and lack of respect for authority among the youth.

Whatever the real cause, this violence has dented the global reputation of Great Britain, especially at a time when London is preparing to host the Olympics next year. How speedily and effectively the British government is able to restore normalcy to London and other cities will be a real test of its will and commitment to public safety and security, the first duty of any government.

Harsh V Pant