Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Policing the Crisis

One of the more interesting angles on the violent rioting going on in parts of London over the past three nights is the increasingly toxic relationship between the Conservative party dominated coalition government and the police (especially London's Metropolitan Police Department). In an insightful backgrounder in the Guardian, Sandra Laville points out that when Margaret Thatcher faced similar rioting in the 1980s over a poor economy and cuts to government social benefits, she could count on her close relationship to police on whom she frequently lavished ideological support and which was a part of government she did not seek to cut. In contrast, David Cameron's mix of law and order populism and cross the board cuts in government spending have put his government increasingly at odds with police forces around the UK that are facing both severe cuts and the prospect of rule by locally elected police commissioners (a move many have described as an effort to unleash more American style populist pressure on policing).

At the same time, both Conservatives and the Metropolitan police leaders have been badly damaged by their close association with Rupert Murdoch's toxic tabloid newspapers, especially the now terminated News of the World which has been shown to have engaged in wholesale violations of privacy laws by "hacking" into the mobile phone voice mails of countless celebrities, politicians, Royals, and most outrageously, murder victims and the families of military personnel killed in Afghanistan. Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson announced his resignation last month after facing massive criticism for the fact that his own media adviser was a News of the World heavy and that one of his top commanders, John Yates, had rejected a renewed investigation of the phone hacking scandal after it was brought back to life by coverage in the Guardian during 2009. Stephenson, whose resignation was not rejected by either London Mayor Boris Johnson (a Conservative) or Prime Minister Cameron, publically slammed the PM by drawing the not fantastical parallel with the Prime Minister's employment of Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World who had resigned that job because of hacking problems, as his major media adviser during the 2010 general election as during the first half year of his government (Coulson resigned as the hacking issue heated up again in December). [The fact that both party leadership and police leadership were operating on political scripts written by tabloid media wizards adept in playing on the themes of fear and scandal is worthy of a post its own right.]

Against this tense background, the coalition government's commitment to substantial cuts in almost all government spending program (excluding some health, but that is facing its own coalition led upheavals) and student fee increases for university students has generated increasing public order problems for the police, especially in London. Since the spending cuts were announced last Fall, there have been several massive demonstrations in London that have spilled over into riotous behavior by fringe groups and major embarrassments for both the police and the government. And now, the worst rioting in a generation. To add to the sense of existential crisis for the tradition rich Metropolitan Police, according to Laville, Cameron would like to see former New York Police Commissioner (and since global security entrepreneur) Bill Bratton as the new Commissioner in London.

Like Ronald Reagan in the US, Thatcher could combine hostility to government welfare and regulation while strongly identifying with the military and criminal justice aspects of state power. That option seems to be foreclosed precisely as the global economic restructuring of the once rich west picks up its pace and seems likely to place governments of all parties in the position of cutting military and security budgets while continuing to generate excess insecurity for their populations. It will take a leader in the UK or the US of real vision to talk their respective publics down from the crime fear based consensus on security that Reagan and Thatcher helped promote, and which both Clinton and Blair expanded on, while navigating toward a new economic model that can produce sustainable economic growth (rather than debt based construction booms and busts). Both David Cameron and Barack Obama once looked like leaders who might have such a vision. Right now I wouldn't bet on either.

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