Friday, 12 August 2011

David Cameron's 'Katrina moment'

Members of the British parliament were called back from their vacations for an emergency session yesterday to deal with the country's riots earlier this week. The past two nights have been quiet - a combination of bad weather and a surge in police forces seems to have done the trick. But now the political storm begins, with the public demanding to know how the situation could have gotten so out of control.

The focus of much of the public's ire has been prime minister David Cameron. He was seen to be back-footed during the crisis, spending the first few days of the rioting insisting he would not cut short his vacation in Italy, and only returning to the country after the riots got very serious Monday night. The media has been referring to it as his "Katrina moment", referencing the back-footed response of US president George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The incident is being seen as a defining moment of his premiership, and he has been much maligned for it. The above gag photo of his speech on Tuesday from photoshoplooter illustrates the public's perception of his response.

Cameron has been working overtime to dispel that image over the past few days. In yesterday's emergency session he aggressively denounced the riots, saying the behavior of this bad element of society could not be excused by social factors or circumstances. And though his party often criticised the opposition Labour party for introducing "knee-jerk legislation" after crises during their time in government, he floated no fewer than six new policies. These include a ban on face masks in public, increased curfew powers, allowing courts to ban children from gathering in certain places and, most controversially, he said he is considering allowing temporary bans on social media during times of social unrest.

 This consideration of a Chinese-style Facebook/twitter blackout has received a lot of attention from the international press. But it is most likely just political posturing to try to appease an angry public who are calling for drastic action in the immediate days following the riots. It's hard to see such a policy actually being introduced in a Western country. Then again, these are surprising times.

But the announcement did give China an opening to defend its internet blackout policy, with a crowing 'I told you so' coming from the government's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily. "The West have been talking about supporting internet freedom, and oppose other countries' government to control this kind of websites, now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit and they can't complain about it," they wrote.

Many governments around the world who have been criticised by the UK for their brutal crackdown on protests have delivered snarky condemnations, from Zimbabwe to Iran to Libya. Of course, there was no 'brutal crackdown' on the London riots. In the eyes of much of the British public, the crackdown wasn't brutal enough. If my Facebook wall and Twitter feeds were any indication, during the riots the bulk of British people wanted to see the army brought into the streets and the water cannons used.

Introducing the use of water cannons in future riots was another policy floated by Cameron yesterday. Water cannons have never been used on the British mainland, but they have been used often in Northern Ireland. But this is also likely just political posturing, as almost immediately after the announcement police experts said the use of water cannon in non-political disturbances like this would be ineffective.

However one call from the public Cameron has refused to adhere to is to axe his plans to cut 16,000 officers from the UK police force. The opposition Labour Party made a big issue out of this in yesterday's session, hammering him for cutting the policing budget at a time when crime is likely to increase because of the economic crisis.

Instead the government said it would be bringing in Bill Bratton, the American supercop credited with turning around New York City in the 1990's, to advise the government on urban crime. But this has raised some eyebrows, considering that Bratton is as controversial as he is celebrated in New York City. As police commissioner under former mayor Rudy Giuliani, he instituted the "broken windows theory" of policing in the city. The theory states that petty crime leads to serious crime, so the 1990's led to a serious crackdown on petty crime. It made New York a safe city to be in and turned it around from the dark days of the 1980's when it was extremely dangerous. But on the flip side, many say it has turned New York into a police state, where officers can arrest you for anything. Cameron's hiring of Bratton certainly sends a signal about where his intentions lie.

Cameron's public relations team is probably working in overdrive at the moment. A lot of it is just for show, but there will no doubt be significant policy changes resulting from all of this. It will be a different David Cameron from the one who famously urged people to understand the causes of youth criminality in a 2006 speech dubbed by the media as the "hug a hoodie" speech. Back then Cameron's main concern was shedding the old image of the Conservatives as a mean-spirited, uncaring lot in order to make them electable again. But these days the public seems to be demanding something quite different from the Conservatives. Cameron is unlikely to be hugging hoodies again any time soon.

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