Wednesday, July 18, 2012

London Calling

A midsummer shout-out to all my friends in London, one of my favorite cities to be in anytime, either personally or in my imagination in hundreds of novels.  Any time, er, except perhaps right now. Summer is always an elusive season in London, but this o one finds old towne sinking rapidly into a steampunk disaster story.  Just to recount the stories that have crossed the American media bubble.  Tens of thousands of privileged and fussy visitors are preparing to descend through Heathrow (OMG) into a city already under permanent and great security strain since 7/7 (why did anyone ever think that would be a good idea).  Ahead of the big bash the city has had an epically wet and unpleasant summer.  And instead of an opportunity to show off the wonders of neo-liberalism to a global elite, the major economic story is that the big City banks appear to have conspired to rig the entire financial services economy on which the nation has  staked its economy. 

Now, to cap off this plot, the vast and scary private everything corporation, with the ominous name (don't these people ever watch science fiction movies) G4S, which had been handed a humungous sweetheart contract to provide security for the games has acknowledged only days before the event launches that it is thousands of people short of its promised staffing levels (read the Guardian reporting here) and as a result thousands of soldiers and police (almost every London police officer already had their leaves cancelled months ago) will have to be deployed at a massive cost to the public treasury.  How this could be happening in a country with staggering unemployment (mind you G4S, which types out G$S if you don't type carefully, runs the job centers in much of the nation) is mind boggling.  In a parliamentary degradation ceremony yesterday the company's CEO was forced to agree that it was all a "humiliating shambles."

Oh, well, this too shall pass, and hopefully without any surface to air missiles, which apparently have been installed across a number of city rooftops, being launched.  I'm told by thoughtful architects and urban planners that the infrastructures installed for the London games will help revitalize the eastside.  And then you can look forward to winter.

1 comment:

Tim Newburn said...

Great post as ever Jonathan. You’re quite right in your implication that we Brits already seem to have nailed our first gold medal (marathon complaining). I have nothing critical to say about your observations – they seem spot on to me. I just wanted to add a little bit of background – which I know you’ll be very familiar with – to the story about G4S.

Crucially, it arrives at an interesting time in the politics of policing in England. It is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the government is in the midst of severe public sector cuts and has made it clear that the police service should be anything but immune. This makes the police service understandably both nervous and, some of the time, angry. One consequence of the cuts has been that questions around privatization or contracting out have been becoming increasingly visible, and this itself is a significant part of the backdrop to the G4S scandal. (Already a number of senior figures have been rethinking their stance on private sector involvement in policing.

Second, and more broadly and unusually, government has also been positioning itself for a major fight with the police service for some time now. The past two decades have seen something of a competition between the two main political parties here to see who can stay closest to the cops. All this ended with the arrival of the new coalition government in 2010. Their agenda, it soon became clear, was to institute some significant changes in what they styled as ‘the last great unreformed public service’. In addition to the financial cuts, they have reformed governance structures, have imposed an unpopular choice on the police service as the head of the independent inspectorate, and have set about attempting to change officers’ employment contracts (and their pensions in particular). The consequence has been argument upon argument, and a severe cooling of relations. It was in the midst of this that G4S stumbled.

Thus we find ourselves in the midst of the biggest peacetime security operation for who knows how long (quite possibly ever?), the main private security contractor is unable to deliver on contract, and there is no choice for the government but to have the police and the army, both of which are losing plenty of staff, come in to cover the shortfall. With the Games only days away now, I suspect this will go quiet for a little while as the medals are won and lost. But the story is not going to go away. The consequences for G4S will not be good, and will only get worse if anything really problematic occurs. The police and armed services now have public sympathy on their side. Which only leaves government? It is too early to tell how this will play out for the coalition, but there must inevitably be some bumpy times ahead I think. One way or the other an interesting criminal justice story is being played out across the front pages.

And, just in case you thought I failed to respond to the most obviously British bit of the story – it’s sunny in London today!