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London riots strain police force. Have spending cuts played a role in unrest?

The London riots and looting this weekend were among the worst civil disturbances Britain has seen in a quarter-century. Some blamed government spending cuts for sowing unrest and weakening police.

By Ian EvansCorrespondent / August 8, 2011

Police cordon off an area Sunday, Aug. 7, during unrest in Enfield, North London. New unrest erupted on north London's streets late Sunday, a day after rioting and looting in a deprived area amid community anger over a fatal police shooting.

Karel Prinsloo/AP



A spate of London riots and looting, sparked by the fatal shooting of an alleged gangster, have posed a serious test of Britain's policing capability just 12 months ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. It has also raised questions about the social impact of Prime Minister David Cameron's five-year austerity plan to dramatically cut back government spending – a plan aimed at bolstering Britain's economy amid a European economic crisis.

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Parts of London cleared up today after some of the worst civil disturbances in the capital for more than 25 years, which began Thursday night after police shot dead a local man in racially mixed Tottenham. The impoverished inner-city area of north London was the scene of race riots in 1985 during which policeman Keith Blakelock was murdered by a mob.

Riots and looting, some of which police said was just plain criminality, spread to other London suburbs over the weekend. London police officials tripled the number of officers on the ground from Saturday to Sunday night, and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said there would be a third more officers on the ground this evening.

Britain's Tories under fire

As police have struggled to contain the violence, Britain's conservative Tory government has come under fire for leaving the country vulnerable to such violence in the first place.

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division," said former London mayor Ken Livingstone, blaming the government's austerity measures. "As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions, this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.

“Tories will issue knee-jerk statements demanding support for the police but they are actually cutting the police," he added. "That amounts to pure hypocrisy.”

However Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, played down police budget cuts or recent resignations at the top of the Metropolitan Police – including commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson in the wake of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal – as factors.

He said: “There are still very able senior officers at the Met who are more than capable of dealing with disturbances like the weekend but perhaps on this occasion intelligence wasn’t what it could have been.

“Undoubtedly, senior officers will be looking ahead to the Olympics in exactly 12 months time and wondering how they will cope if similar events unfold then when they’re dealing with security and overseeing visitors from around the world," he added. "I think that will be a great concern at the moment.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson, Mr. Cameron, his Home Secretary Theresa May, and Tottenham borough police commander Detective Chief Superintendent Sandra Looby were all on vacation when the riots erupted. Mrs. May cut short her holiday today to fly home and deal with the crisis. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Looby are reportedly also on their way home.

215 people arrested


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