The Crown divided


‘Police versus politicians’ was the headline in the Independent (Saturday 13 August 2011) Inside were two separate stories ‘Officers turn on ministers over riot claims’ and ‘Confidence in PMs leadership dented’. These were typical of many in the press. The English riots have produced something we don’t normally see – a public argument between two parts of the Crown – Her Majesty’s Constabulary and Ministers of the Crown.


The ‘Economist’ says that “the police stand accused of allowing mayhem to go unchecked” (13 August 2011). It reports that public opinion was angry about the riots and dismayed that the police had failed to get on top of it. The police tactics were to stand back while shops were looted by gangs of young people. YouGov polls showed that large majorities of people with no experience of handling ‘law and order’ wanted tough measures such as water cannon, tear gas, tasers, plastic bullets. 


Most people saw the events reported in the press and TV from the safety of their homes. People were frightened by the violence and angry at the young rioters who showed little or no concern for others as displayed by the mugging of the dazed and injured Malaysian student.  


Citizens’ defence


The riots brought home the fact that citizens (strictly speaking Her Majesty’s subjects) have no collective means of self defence. Combine fear with powerlessness and we have an explosive brew. We have the example of the murder of a sixty eight year old man trying to put out a fire in Ealing. The riots exposed a vacuum in citizen self defence. But this deficit exists in many working class areas where drug barons and gangs rule the roost.


Something stirred. Three young Muslims in Birmingham were murdered whilst organising the defence of their shops and Mosque. In some areas there were signs of local community organization. There was evidence that supporters of the English Defence League were involved in a few places. But citizens’ self defence has nothing in common with vigilantes or an English Klu Klux Clan searching for ‘foreign’ looking people to string up.      


Spontaneous justifiable fear and anger does not exist in isolation. It can be whipped up or whipped down by politicians and the press. Like public opinion it is partly spontaneous and partly manufactured by those in power. We saw the example of the powerful life affirming statement issued by the father of one of those murdered in Birmingham. His statement seems to have gone a long way to lower the temperature.  


Tory reaction


The Tories by contrast had every motive to raise the temperature. It would direct public attention away from their responsibilities and failures. When it comes to whipping up people’s justifiable fear and anger into a lynch mob or witch-hunt mentality Tory politicians and the largely Tory press are past masters. Bring in Rupert Murdoch and the Sun to zap the scum!!


If Cameron and Clegg have tried to present themselves as civilised and thoughtful hug-a-hoody liberals the mask had to slip. Cameron threw away his disguise to reveal the avenging angel, the darling of the back bench, back woods, hunting, fishing and flogging brigade. He could even don the Napoleonic mantle as Thatcher had done with the ‘Argies’.


Class war was declared. Whip up the public and promise exemplary punishments. This would reinforce the message that if working class people dared to riot they would be beyond the pale. Class war is not declared by saying so as such. It must be done by using the class codes of English society. The stench of class hypocrisy – one law for the rich - is never far away.

The words ‘single parent’ or ‘council housing’ or ‘benefits’ are class loaded. This doesn’t mean that all workers are in one or any of these categories. But these are social codes not scientific categories. The class message is clear – the ‘underclass’ not the ruling class is responsible for the break down of society. The Tory government is in the clear.


The Tories attract to their laager everybody who is fearful, respectable and ‘law abiding’. The middle class can be reassured that the underclass will receive ‘exemplary’ punishments. The rioters will not simply go to jail but have their ‘benefits’ stopped and be thrown out of their homes. A mob of Tory Councillors were soon queuing up to carry out the punishments.


Blaming the police


One could easily make a case for the tactics used by the police. Without overwhelming force the best thing was ensuring a police presence wherever rioting occurred and tactics to contain and photograph the rioters. Containment is a tactic not a strategy. Within a couple of days the police were able to mobilise overwhelming force to overpower the young looters. Large scale arrests soon followed from the CCTV, police and public photos.


The Tory government could have explained the police tactics to the public and supported them. Instead they tried to exploit the situation by attacking ‘soft’ policing. It is ironic that the riots had been sparked by ‘hard’ policing. Armed police had shot dead Mark Duggan. Nobody has yet explained this as an accident, a mistake, revenge or assassination. 


The Tories attack on soft policing was seizing the opportunity presented by the press and the popular mood. They spun the story that Cameron came back from holiday and took charge. The PM pushed the ‘surge’ which swamped riot areas. There were enough police but they had not be properly organised or led. Only Boris Johnson wasn’t entirely on message. London needed more police and spending cuts should be reversed.


Cameron ploughed on, backed by his Liberal Democratic Deputy. Clegg announced the police were reviewing their own failings. He explained “the police themselves have said they want to review tactics and look at tactics and learn lessons. Nobody is sitting there as armchair generals trying to second guess tactical decisions in very difficult circumstances.” (Independent August 13). But that was exactly what Ministers were doing.       


Police fight back


Sir Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, hit back at the political attacks on the police. He claimed that police at all levels were furious with politicians trying to take the glory for quelling the riots and blaming the police for failing to stop the riots in the first place. As one police sergeant said “the idea that David Cameron had come back from Tuscany to tell us how to do our job is offensive”. (Independent 13 August 2011) 


Sir Hugh Orde issued a public rebuke to Cameron. He said that Cameron’s return from Tuscany was irrelevant to the changes in police tactics. One source said the PM had to be persuaded not to bring in the armed forces onto the streets. He complained about the “totally unjustified” and “negative attacks” on the police. He was scathing about Teresa May, the Home Secretary, claiming she had ordered a switch of police to tougher tactics. He said the decision to flood the capitals with 16,000 police was taken by the police themselves and not the politicians.


Top police were equally offended and hostile to Cameron’s plan to bring in former Los Angles police Chief Bill Bratton. The Tories knee jerk response was to look to America for answers. They are already implementing ‘Americanisation’ of universities and the Health Service with a dose of free market methods. But in the context of riots calling in Bratton was a vote of no confidence in the police force in England. Ian Hanson, chairman of the greater Manchester Police Federation countered by saying the government should listen to those who had the experience of dealing with this section of society.


Crown divided


The public row between the police and Ministers is one of the extraordinary features of this crisis. The appearance of the Crown divided into warring parts damages the credibility of both. Neither police nor Ministers maintain public confidence. This was confirmed by a ConRes survey reporting that more than half the public have lost confidence in the government. The police fared no better. More than two-thirds opposed Tory plans to cut police numbers and blamed the government’s austerity policy. 


The English riots were a confrontation between the Crown and section of England’s redundant youth. The tremors of this political earthquake which exposed fractures within the Crown will necessarily be felt in the ‘Palace’. The queen has maintained full diplomatic silence. But as the UK’s most experienced and longest serving politician she will understand the dangers of a divided Crown. In time of political crisis the monarch has an important role to play.  


The Crown is not the queen. She is however more than merely the head of the Crown. She is the Crown made ‘flesh’ – the living embodiment of the Crown. The monarchy is meant to provide ancient-historic bonds of loyalty between the queen and her subjects. In our constitutional monarchy the queen is the focal point for the unity of Crown and People. In this sense the monarch transcends the Crown and appeals to the people as head of the national ‘family’.  

The function of the monarchy is reflected in its constitutional role. Prime Minister has a duty to consult with the queen and listen to her advice at their weekly meetings. No doubt that the queen will have told Cameron that he must heal the divisions within the Crown as a matter of urgency. When the Crown has re-established law and order in the riot torn areas a visit from Her Majesty or other royals would be expected to promote national unity.    


On 16 August the Crown began to paper over the cracks. The Home Secretary called a press conference surrounded by all the senior police officers, including Orde and the other Met candidates. She praised the police as brave and hard working who had risked their own safety. She made it clear she was not blaming the rank and file police officers. She paid tribute to leaders of the police and the importance of a well led force. There was no criticism of the police. Government plans for reform of the police would continue. Talk about Bill Bratton will be put on ice at least until things cool down.

Next day Charles and Camilla Windsor visited Tottenham. They went to a local leisure centre now an emergency refuge for those made homeless in the riots. The Royals had interrupted their holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland because they were "keen to visit areas affected by the recent street rioting and violence in England". (Sun 18 Aug 2011) Prince Charles said: "I still think half the problem is that people join gangs because it's a cry for help."They're looking for a framework, a sense of belonging and meaning." He added: "It's just a small minority that created this mayhem that has shocked so many people."

Prince Charles has built and carefully nurtured an image of the future social-green monarch. Paul Harrison reporting this event reminded the people that the “future King” had written an article in 2009 saying "There are still far too many people for whom opportunities do not exist. People whose frustrations and energies, when not channelled at a crucial point in their lives, can so easily be directed into threatening and anti-social activities." (Sky News Wednesday August 17 2011 Paul Harrison).  

Crown responsibilities  


A riot is a significant political event. It differs from an insurrection as a strike differs from a general strike. In Northern Ireland in 1969 Catholic rioters drove the sectarian B-specials out of the Bogside in Derry. A riot became more like an insurrection. The Crown ordered British troops brought in. England’s riots never rose to the level of insurrection. The fact that the police opposed calls to bring in the army shows England’s riots did not pose the same political danger


England’s riots were a confrontation between the Crown, in the guise of the police, and a section of the people – in the case redundant youth. The immediate trigger was the role of the police in the killing of Mark Duggan. By the end of the riots four people were dead, at an estimated cost of £200 million, with 2000 mainly young people arrested and facing jail sentences.     

The parties of the Crown have placed the blame on society. The finger is pointed variously at ‘feral’ youth, single parents, failing schools, poverty, unemployment, gang culture, lack of respect for authority, celebrity culture, and materialistic social values etc. Cameron invented the phrase of a ‘sick’ and broken society to encompass some or all of this. There is no doubt that some or all of these things play a part in understanding these events.


Republican socialists


Who was involved in the rioting and looting is matter of fact. But who is responsible? Who managed or governed the social conditions and culture of the ‘sick society’ is something else. British squaddies shoot people in Iraq or Afghanistan. But did they ‘cause’ these wars? Did concentration camp guards ‘cause’ the Holocaust? To say ‘no’ is not to excuse personal responsibility. But the regime or political class is responsible for what takes place in their societies.  


Republican Socialists place political responsibility for the riots on the Crown – in particular ministers, Whitehall bureaucrats and police. The old Navy motto points us in the right direction –“there is no such thing as a bad ships crew only a bad ship’s captain” The problem is not ‘bad’ people but a failed regime. Of course the riots happened on Cameron’s ‘watch’. But the failings of the Crown are not simply due to its current ministers but include permanent policies of Whitehall under Thatcher, Blair and Brown.


Republican socialists oppose the Tory Coalition and want its immediate end. But we do not limit ourselves to opposing the Coalition. Getting rid of the Tories would be a major step forward. But it will change the ‘face’ but not the political essence of the Her Majesty’s government. Our aim is to abolish the Crown and replace it with a fully democratic system of popular sovereignty. We differ from Labour socialists who limit their political criticism to the Tories and pretend Labour is an alternative rather than a continuation of the same failed system of government.        


Republican socialists do not limit themselves to purely political answers. On the contrary behind the politics of the Crown is the power of the City and corporate capital. Underlying the politics of England’s riots are the economic demands and imperatives which drive politics. Capitalism and the logic of the profit motive has created fabulous wealth for a few and pushed many millions into a life in poverty. A peoples’ republic will make possible extensive democratic public ownership and the redistribution of income and wealth as the means to change the social conditions which fuelled the riots.



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