The Distant Thunder of Water Cannon
Over the last couple of years the conversations I’ve had with friends in the city have been defined by their unremitting gloom.
Just this week a neighbour who works as a market analyst pointed to a recent paper by a senior economist at a major bank that suggests Europe may not get itself back on a firm financial footing until 2020. If the author is right then we will have been through an on and off recession lasting 12 years.
Where the living standards of the 99% who have to work for a living will be at the end of it is anyone’s guess but for almost all they will be lower than in 2001.
That’s bad, yet my neighbour fears worse. She sees the possibility of complete social meltdown.
Of the many ‘lessons’ supposedly drawn from the summer’s riots the most demonstrable is surely this; that with the advent of new technology the police no longer have the organisational advantage they once enjoyed.
In August things came very close to a tipping point where the police had to surrender the streets to the rioters. In some cases, arguably, that tipping point was momentarily passed.
The police rely not just on their immediate physical response, their ability to put officers, vehicles and riot equipment on the ground at flashpoints, but also on the sense that even if crimes are committed unhindered now the law will inexorably close in on those responsible.
Yet if future disorder does spiral out of control and if public anger is such that a larger and larger minority sides with rioters, not just passively but actively participates, then the realisation will dawn that the police simply won’t be able to track down most of those who have taken part. The more widespread the rioting the more would-be rioters will feel they have impunity, the more that those on the fringes will put aside their fear of retribution and join in.
And that, I suspect, is what the government really fears. Faced with a surge of anger at the way our economy has been pillaged by the super rich and financial institutions the authorities pull their one club from their golf bag and use it to threaten or beat anyone who gets off their posterior to protest. Ignore comments that the British are not supposed to protest sitting or lying down, the establishment doesn’t like protest full stop unless it’s sufficiently polite that they can afford to ignore it.
They seem unable to distinguish between protest that expresses legitimate feelings of injustice, something that should prompt the government to act to address those grievances, and civil disorder in the making.
The phrase that I keep reaching for is ‘in denial’, for through the disaster that is the current crash the 1% and the politicians that support them seem to be expanding the maximum effort to preserve the status quo and doing the minimum required to appease the rest sufficient to forestall further rioting.
The same pattern can be seen time and again. Those insulated by wealth and power from the reality experienced by everyone else never grasp the seriousness of the situation until it is too late.
Just as with Mubarak and Gaddafi, so too in their own way the mighty of the City of London and the cabinet. Rather than seize the initiative and do sufficient to properly address the despair of the many, rather than ensure that the pain is borne proportionally by those best placed to weather it, they will do the minimum; forever reactive, forever on the back foot, never in control.
This is a time to demonstrate the hard way that we’re all in this together. But what we will surely see, time and again, is that we are not. Rather than listen to dissent they will suppress it. Rather than help the poor they will keep them down.
So when (I fear it will not be if) they resort to water cannon and rubber bullets we will have reached a point of no return. They will have created a wound in our society, a divide between an ever larger number of us and an ever smaller number of them, that will not be healed with warm words. The consequences cannot be fathomed but we should be afraid.
Very few of us have anything to gain from more riots. They will play into the hands of the far right and the authoritarian left.
The government needs to wake up to the fact that change is inevitable and manage that change. Doing nothing will simply hand the opportunity to do something to some very ugly people.