UK Riots: The failure of the state

The public will not pay for a State that does not protect them. The coalition must either cut taxes and allow people to purchase their own security, or the State needs to become radically more effective, fast.

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David Cameron meets with police in Manchester
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Paul Abbott
On 16 August 2011 10:07

Last week I was on my honeymoon, when news of the riots ("London's burning") came over Sky News.

My new wife and I were in Spain, where the streets were lazily peaceful, the Metro had air-conditioning, and local unemployment was 25%. A taxi driver told us in fact that he was moving back to India, because the job market was better there (he was a travel agent by trade).

But the London riots were shocking to us, not because they were happening, but because of the total failure of the State.

The strong impression from Sky News, and later from blogs online, was that Leviathan's effort was sluggish at best and in many parts of London it was non-existent. I can understand why the Prime Minister wants outside help from the USA.

Inevitably, as we watched the headlines loop on the television, we felt the usual spectre of emotions: worry, concern, anger. But most of all we were shocked, that the State had been so mindbogglingly ineffective. Not just on the first night. But on the second, and the third.

I am not a Libertarian: some taxation is necessary. But, as a University friend of mine put it later that week: “Why should the State spend half our GDP, if we're getting such a poor return on our money?”

To a certain extent I don't blame the Police entirely. At full strength on Tuesday night (the fourth night), the Met had just 16,000 officers in the Capital, in a city of 8 million people. There are 6.2 million people who work in the UK public sector, many of them fit and active and in central London. Why can’t we redeploy at least a tiny fraction of those to support the Police, in an emergency?

Inevitably, the commentariat aftermath has confused matters. Events are already being shoehorned into everyone's agendas, and the Babel will soon be deafening. BBC Four will soon swarm with intense docudramas, for example, with titles like: "My Life As A Rioter" and "Nightmare On Clapham High Street". But whatever new details emerge, and however they may alter the final analysis, there is at least one conclusion that is likely to remain.

In his autobiography about working in Blair’s Cabinet Office, Instruction To Deliver, Michael Barber says: “Blair’s central political insight in domestic policy is the recognition that the public services can improve the lot of the disadvantaged only if they also appeal to the middle classes.”

The same holds true for the Coalition. The public will not pay for a State that does not protect them. With a Eurozone crisis looming, astronomical levels of debt, and inflation rising, there are now broadly two options. Either cut taxes and allow people to purchase their own security, or the State needs to become radically more effective, fast. There is no third way.

Paul Abbott is a Senior Researcher to a Conservative MP

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