Opinion: The dangers of acting without knowing the facts

By now, there cannot be many people in this country who have not heard about the disturbances across England this week. The scenes of wanton criminal damage and violence, the deaths and injuries, the families made homeless and businesses destroyed, have re-opened a debate that clearly was not resolved last time we witnessed such levels of disorder.

Questions are already being asked about the underlying causes of the trouble, and how it was dealt with. No doubt those arguments will continue for some time to come. Everyone has a theory and everyone thinks they have a solution. What is clear is that the overwhelming majority of the public have condemned what happened, and want action to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

However, if we are serious about tackling the problem we must make sure we understand it, and I am far from convinced that we do right now. There are things we do know, and these must be our starting point in trying to fathom what happened so we can address it. These are:

    • The majority of the offenders were young people, although this may not always be reflected in the ages of those subsequently arrested. (As a former Public Order Commander I know that officers will often target and arrest older offenders at an incident if they are given a choice.)
    • These young people were obviously not deterred by the possible consequences of their actions, nor by the presence of CCTV or passers-by filming them on their mobile phones. Many made only rudimentary attempts to cover their faces, and broad daylight was no deterrent.
    • The offenders were highly mobile, and used mobile phones effectively to counter police public order tactics. This is a departure from previous instances of public disorder, where large groups take up a position and hold it, keeping the police at bay by throwing missiles such as petrol bombs, or establishing barricades of burning vehicles or rubble.
    • The offenders were reassured by the large number of like-minded people who gathered together for a common purpose.
    • The bulk of items stolen were fashion clothing, expensive trainers and electrical items, all of which are tradable currency to the thieves.
    • Race is not an issue. The majority of arrests to date were of white people, and many actually had jobs or an apparent stake in society.

What is less well understood is why these young people did what they did. We can all speculate, and there will be much that is accurate and relevant in our appreciation of what motivated them. We can be fairly confident that there is a ‘feral’ sub-culture developing in many of our cities that the criminal justice system does not deter, and they regard the rest of us, if they think about us at all, as prey. But can we say that the majority of those involved come from this group? At the moment we just don’t have that information.

We are speculating that the motivation was sheer greed or criminality, but do we know enough to say this with conviction? Others are saying that there has been a breakdown in respect for authority, or that parents have lost control of their children, but I remember the same being said of every generation since the 1960s.

What is needed at this point is a thorough and searching examination of the causes of the disorder. By establishing why it happened we will be in a better position to formulate a lasting and effective response. What must not happen is a rush to judgement and new legislation before there is evidence that it will have the desired effect. We have seen knee-jerk legislation introduced in the past, which has singularly failed to address the problem it was designed to solve.

This is by no means to suggest that Liberal Democrats advocate being soft on law or order. The liberal philosophy on wrongdoing is ably set out by the philosopher John Stuart Mill in his seminal treatise ‘On Liberty’. Mill said:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm over others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. There are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.

Mill clearly agrees that conduct calculated to harm someone else would justify punishment by the state. He expresses this view because he recognised that those who ‘produce evil to some one else’ are the greatest threat to the liberties of the rest of us.

I recall, as a boy, visiting London and being able to wander along Downing Street and stand on the doorstep of No. 10. Recently, the best I could do with my grandson was to stand at the bottom of the street peering through the metal bars and past the team of armed police officers standing guard. A little thing, perhaps, but a freedom lost nonetheless.

Any of us who have flown over the last 30 years will have seen how the enjoyment of arriving at an airport and relaxing before being called to board our flight, has changed into an almost intolerable ordeal. One by one, piece by piece, the acts of evil-doers erode the freedoms and joys of the majority.

Already, today, those who want to limit our access to the internet, or social media, are talking of new ‘restrictions’. I can appreciate that this might have been useful in dealing with the recent troubles, but I am concerned that it may be one more ‘cut’ to the ‘death of a thousand cuts’ that our liberties are currently undergoing.

We must be so careful when adopting these ‘solutions’ that we do not add a further brick to the prison wall be are building around ourselves. That would simply punish the innocent majority for the sins of a guilty minority. This is why it is so important that we identify what really happened, and why it happened, and deal with it. That is not being soft on crime.

* Matt Gallagher is a Lib Dem member in Manchester.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Sid Cumberland 11th Aug '11 - 7:22pm

    Wise words. I’d recommend anyone who’s interested to get hold of a copy of ‘Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears’, by Geoffrey Pearson. Every age has its moral panics, and as liberals our job is to ensure that the remedies are not worse than the illnesses.

  • “Others are saying that there has been a breakdown in respect for authority, or that parents have lost control of their children, but I remember the same being said of every generation since the 1960s.”

    All the more reason to think it’s true – and the point is that it’s the cumulative effect down the generations which has brought us to the morass we’re in now.

    I see it every day in the college where I work. I was a student at the same college back in the late ’80s. The students today are so different from the students of my day, in terms of their behaviour around adults, that you’d think you were looking at generations two centuries apart rather than two decades.

    Just to give the most frequent example, when today’s students talk to staff (whether it be lecturers, reception staff, whatever) they will use the F word literally every three or four words, just as they do when they talk to their friends. Twenty odd years ago, my peers and I would never have sworn in front of a member of staff, and we would have regarded it as shocking if anybody had. Maybe my spectacles are a tad rose tinted but I really don’t think it would have been tolerated back then.

    When I was young there was a general feeling that if you wanted to be respected, if you wanted to have nice things, and if you wanted to have a stake in society, then you had to EARN it in some way. That idea appears to have gone completely out of the window.

    I dare say we all have countless anecdotes of how things have changed, and the miserable effect that bad parenting is having on society. I’ll just share one recent one with you that may, on the surface, seem very trivial, but I found it profoundly depressing at the time and I think it’s a neat little illustration of just where some of today’s parents are going so wrong.

    My son’s high school (which has had bad problems with discipline and truancy in the recent past) has come up with various incentive schemes to improve things. One of these was an end-of-year trip to a well known Staffordshire theme park, free of charge, but available only to those pupils who had reached a certain minimum standard of behaviour and attendance throughout the year.

    I don’t think the bar was set terribly high. Most kids were invited on the trip – I think you had to be pretty darn bad not to get a place.

    Anyways, the end result was that pretty much every pupil in the year got to go – because the parents of those children who were NOT invited simply removed their offspring from school that day and took them to the same theme park themselves!

    I thought this was truly despicable. When parents are prepared to wilfully undermine the efforts of schools in this way, what chance have we got of improving things? How are the children of those parents ever to develop any kind of sense that they ought to do the right thing?

    My son came home upset and confused that day. He couldn’t understand why the kids who had been disrupting his education all year had ended up getting exactly the same treat as he had.

    One day, if I ever work it out, I’ll explain it to him.

    As some people on LDV today have pointed out, there’s nothing liberal about giving kids free rein when they are harming others and damaging the life chances of those among their peers who just want to get on and make something of themselves. Something has gone out of balance somewhere.

  • There’s definately a danger of these riots being used to restrict the social media and legitimate protest. Personally. I don’t think they will ever be fully explained because after the initial spur they involved the group mentality of a bunch of kids mixing with all sorts of influences.

  • What if Mill was wrong? What if Mill was simply reflecting the society in which he found himself?

    `The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm over others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant`

    This phrase alone alarms me when it comes to the right of a child to a decent upbringing. What if that adult is really still a child and is bringing up a child?

    Time to embrace thoughtful, pragmatic, intellectually deeper `Muscular Liberalism` before it’s hijacked by other parties.

  • Race is not an issue. The majority of arrests to date were of white people, and many actually had jobs or an apparent stake in society.

    Can you provide me with the actual figures?

  • Matt Gallagher 11th Aug '11 - 10:41pm

    The comment that the majority of arrests TO DATE was made by the BBC news reporter monitoring the overnight court hearings at Camberwell magistrates courts. In Manchester, local police have also said that many of those arrested were from Salford, an area with a very low ratio of BME members. Those charged so far include teaching assistants, a trainee social worker, a call centre operator, and others with some form of occupation. GMP have created a Facebook site showing the photographs of those arrested and charged so far, and in the coming days it is expected that a more precise statistical breakdown of the arrest figures will be released. As I said in the article, we still have a lot to learn about these events, but those reporting to us from the more responsible news sources have indicated that this is not a race issue. The most serious incident in Manchester was the torching of the Miss Selfridge shop on Market Street. The entire incident was filmed, and the offenders were most definitely white.

  • @Matt Gallagher:

    As a Mancunian, that was one of the things I noticed myself. And of course, the ever-opportunistic EDL and BNP folk were trying to make this a race issue, even when confronted with evidence that looting was not confined to a particular racial (or indeed age or sex) group.

    What worries me, however, is people I know online and off who are normally very reasonable and polite making very nasty, often repressive, vengeful and slight racist comments where I would have never expected this from them in the past. It does indeed seem there is a growing section of society who want, in general, a more authoritarian and repressive society. And some people would be surprised how so many of them were once small-l liberals and squarely anti-racist.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Aug '11 - 5:19am

    ” Race is not an issue. The majority of arrests to date were of white people, and many actually had jobs or an apparent stake in society.”

    I hope you are right. The TV pictures from London did not seem to show that. Interesting that in the (excellent) Guardian database they don’t show race.

  • Millions of people around the world heard about and saw on TV the disturbances.
    I wonder how many tourists will want to come to London or how many foreign students
    will want to study at British Universities.

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 12th Aug '11 - 10:35pm

    Millions of people around the world heard about and saw on TV the disturbances.

    Right. We’ve had discussions with our ten-year-old half-Czech, half-British granddaughter, who is due to make an annual family visit to London shortly, and was very concerned by the reports she saw on Czech TV.

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