Plan of action to halt riots eludes Britain's leaders

Night after night of television screens flickering with images of burning, looting, and frustration have generated an intense national debate, but so far no consensus, in this land of tolerance and unarmed police.

Both the tolerance and the image of the police as benevolent and effective are now under serious challenge.

So are the austerity policies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, which now faces the most difficult crisis of its two years in office.

So is the ability of the British people to cope with what most analysts agree is urban frustration and anger born of one of the worst recessions in Europe, and an unemployment rate that has jumped more sharply than in any other major industrial country.

TV screens, radio programs, and newspapers are filled with analysis. In downtown London people discuss the consequences of rioting almost as routinely as cricket scores: "The streets in Brixton are closed, did you hear?" "People say there's trouble in Kingston, can you believe it?" "I'll have to drive home a different way tonight."

In a way, this is Britain's version of what the United States went through in the 1960s. A number of analysts here urge the British government to make a close study of the Kerner Report, issued after the rioting in Detroit and other cities toward the end of '60s.

There are major differences, of course. British young people are not protesting an unpopular war. Nor, with the exception of the conflict in multiracial Southall, in west London, July 3, are the causes explicitly tied to race. Many were riots in imitation of violence in Liverpool and Brixton.

One thread running through the analyses of many experts here (though rejected in public by Mrs. Thatcher) is that the British police have been guilty of what some call "insensitive policing" in inner urban slums. Others simply label it "bullying."

One of Judge Otto Kerner's findings -- the need for closer links between police and community -- thus takes on urgency. But it is difficult for many British people, especially conservative ones, to question the police at all: Respect for authority is a way of life in this country. This is another bastion under challenge now.

Britain is deeply divided. The public debate is loud, often angry. TV and radio discussion programs frequently descend into shouting and confrontation. So does the House of Commons.

At least four main explanations are offered for the riots.

* Only Conservative governmental leaders are reluctant to blame joblessness. They blame vandalism, hooliganism, disrespect for law, parents who lack responsibility and control over their children, and backstage Trotskyite politicians orchestrating riots from the shadows.

* The Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress blame enormous unemployment, bad housing, poor social services, frustration anger, resentment at the visible symbols of authority -- the police.

* Enoch Powell, a member of Parliament, blames the immigration of hundreds of thousands of racial minorities from the Commonwealth and from elsewhere, and warns, "you haven't seen anything yet."

* The far left -- Trotskyites and the young Labour Party activists in their 20s who run local constituencies and support the policies of Tony Benn -- blame the capitalist system.

Red-haired Claire Doyle, dubbed "the apostle of the far left" in the conservative Fleet Street press, told reporters the violence was a "backlash against the millionaires, who are the real criminals of Britain today." Miss Doyle, a member of the staff of Militant, the newspaper of the far-left Trotskyite Militant Tendency Group, paid a quick trip to Toxteth in Liverpool to exhort rioters to more revolt.

Mrs. Thatcher is now being forced to admit that unemployment is at least one cause. She acknowledged as much in Parliament July 6 but then omitted unemployment from a party political broadcast July 8. In that broadcast, which she rewrote after Toxteth, she urged obedience to the law.

Yet even members of her own Cabinet oppose her. Her influential unemployment secretary, James Prior, wants a new package of measures to guarantee every school-leaver government-sponsored training if he can't find a job.

Mrs. Thatcher was said, as of July 12, to be opposed, on the grounds that the plan would cost at least L600 million ($1.2 billion) at a time of government cutbacks.

But the case against her is a powerful one, her critics insist.

British unemployment has risen so fast in just a year that it has accounted for about one-third of the total rise in the 24 industrial democracies belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

Britain represents only 7 percent of the output of those countries.

Among those aged 16 to 24, unemployment is now 14 percent. Total joblessness (now 2.7 million, or 11.1 percent of the work force) is to go to 3 million next year and is to stay there for a lengthy period, officials acknowledge.

Among black youths in inner-city ghettos such as Toxtech, unemployment is as high as 60 percent.

What is better: holding down government spending, then having to pay out a fortune on repairing riot damage, strengthening the police and or unemployment relief -- or boosting preventive spending now?

Reporters who have spoken to youngsters during riots say they scorned political activists ("we don't have to be told how bad it is here," said one). Time and time again the youngters complained of having no jobs and no prospects.

It also seems clear that once the riots began -- usually after an unpopular police action like arresting a black, or raiding a club or a pub -- vandals and looters followed, along with political extremists.

Meanwhile, British police are being widely criticized. They need better riot training, and more contact with their communities, as well as the new riot gear authorized by Home Secretary William Whitelaw.

They were caught flat-footed by the early riots, their defensive lines charged and mocked by youngsters with petrol bombs and rocks while others looted with impunity.

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