Any government can appear strong during a time of peace, growth, augmenting incomes and national celebration. In political terms, this is akin to sailing on a calm sea, and the rewards for leaders who are able to portray an image of absolute serenity and success are significant, even if their policies have little connection to, or influence on, what is actually taking place. Every politician must be aware, however, of the eternal cliché; that the next crisis is just around the corner. David Cameron’s picturesque holiday in Italy was perhaps, in his mind, due reward for what could be described as a successful first year and a bit, at least from a Conservative perspective. Yet his hopes of sailing around Lake Como without a care in the world were dashed when reports reached him that one of the world’s most historic, significant and famous capital cities had gone up in flames. That city was London, containing a multitude of nationalities and ethnicities, vast income differentials, and a citizenry with wildly divergent employment backgrounds.
Cameron did not rush home, however, a fact for which he has faced heavy and vociferous criticism from many corners, when the disturbances in Tottenham broke out on Saturday night. Pictured enjoying a romantic meal with his wife, Samantha, in an Italian eaterie, Cameron’s PR men must have had their heads in their hands, realising that the Etonian had unintentionally made himself appear rather a lame duck. It was only when the riots spread to other urban centres in the capital – Ealing, Clapham, Enfield and Hackney – that the Prime Minister lackadaisically dusted himself down and returned to Britain, apparently determined to reassert his authority.
Every politician must be aware, however, of the eternal cliché; that the next crisis is just around the corner.
His Conservative Party ally, or should that be enemy, Boris Johnson, was also conspicuous by his absence from the city he was elected as Mayor of back in 2008. Thus there was a notable power vacuum both at the national and local level, wilfully filled by shameless looters and embittered, angry Britons intent on wreaking destruction across their, and others’ communities.
Since returning Cameron decided, rather wisely, not to discount without proper consideration any method of at first containing the riots and subsequently dealing with the perpetrators and the clear issues that lie uneasily below mainstream society which drove so many to commit acts of criminality. Yet in recent days he has appeared nothing short of draconian in his willingness to countenance thoroughly undemocratic and at the very least reactionary methods of preventing a repetition of the disorder. The potential shutting down of social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, for instance, drags the ‘respectable, upstanding’ Cameron awkwardly into the realms of world leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian Premier was understandably quick to offer his view on the events in London and other English cities; one can imagine the irony is not lost on Ahmadinejad that a Western leader should be countenancing similar methods of containing disorder to himself.
The potential damage to Britain’s international reputation aside – a reality which in many ways has yet to manifest itself – the consequences of the riots and the manner in which they have been handled and continue to be approached by the government could impact heavily on the Conservatives’ standing amongst the electorate. Despite initial calls for ludicrously militaristic and repressive measures against the rioters, such as bringing in the army, instituting a state of emergency and enforcing martial law, many are now beginning to realise that the causes of the riots are rather more deep-rooted than initially believed, and are in urgent need of being resolved. The fact that Cameron has so far failed to acknowledge that the ‘sickness’ of certain pockets of British society may not be self-inflicted doesn’t bode well for dreams of a harmonious nation in which all members feel they have a stake in society. Furthermore, his grand promises of punishing rioters ‘to the full extent’ of the law may not save his reputation amongst Conservative voters, many of whom will have been shaken the most by the riots.
For in the past the Conservatives were known as the party of financial responsibility, able to uphold law and order and protect the interests of the upper and middle classes. With Britain’s growth rate slowly and no tangible evidence that the economic policies being pursued by Cameron’s party are actually working, the first pillar of Conservatism could be able to topple. As for law and order, the middle-class cry of ‘anarchy’ on our streets and ‘powerless’ police ‘standing by’ does little to enhance Cameron’s credentials as an enforcer in the Margaret Thatcher mould. Indeed, there is some evidence that the extreme cuts to public services and austerity faced by the 20% of young people unemployed in this country may in fact be linked, and could provide at least part of the explanation for the outbreak of anger and lawlessness. In addition to this, Cameron’s attempts to cut police numbers look dead in the water in the wake of the riots, and even if this isn’t the case, Cameron will face a revolt from within if he tries to push them past a highly-resistant Johnson, himself desperate to rebuild his shattered image in the capital.
Perhaps the last time that a major crisis had a clear and dramatic effect on the political system in a democratic, Western state was back in 2004, with the devastating Madrid train bombings. Inflicted upon the Spanish people three days prior to the General Election, in which the conservative Partido Popular (PP – Popular Party) were set to triumph, 11-M instead brought about the election of current Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE – Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). The attacks themselves were brutal, callous and inhumane, claiming the lives of almost 200 people. In the immediate aftermath, the Spanish government (then PP-led) blamed Basque separatists ETA for the bombings, a catastrophic miscalculation. It was thought that by claiming ETA responsibility, Jose Maria Aznar and PP would stand a better chance of re-election, whereas if Al-Qaeda were implicated, it would be seen as damaging for the incumbent regime, whose troops were at the time participating in the war in Iraq. A subsequent investigation ruled out ETA responsibility, and could locate only Al-Qaeda ‘inspiration’, rather than direct involvement, however the PP and Aznar had already shot themselves in the foot.
This is the danger Cameron faces. Recent opinion polls have shown a clear public disapproval with the way the government has handed the riots, as well as providing a figure of 61% – this relates to the number of respondents who felt Cameron and his Cabinet colleagues were too tentative and slow in organising their respective returns from holiday. There is no doubt that Cameron’s standing, and that of Mayor Johnson, have diminished. The British public is uncertain, scarred, divided in its approach and desperate for answers. Some blame the breakdown of the family unit, the disintegration of society, and sheer greed for the riots. Others blame the consumerist culture, government cuts and the nonchalant indifference towards the British ‘underclass’. Whoever is right, Cameron has a large minefield to traverse indeed. This won’t be the last crisis of his leadership, but it may well be the most damaging. With the pressure on the assured, straight-backed Prime Minister greater than ever before, as with a seasoned chess player, every move Cameron makes must be a right-one, or he could find himself marooned amidst the unemployed, riotous masses very soon.