Letter from Westminster

It is not yet fully three weeks since parliament broke for the summer recess. I remember speculating with a colleague as I cleared my desk for the break away from Westminster about how long it would be until there was a demand for us to be recalled, if not actually a recall. I was thinking then that it was likely to be some new revelation about phone hacking by the media that would bring us all back from our constituencies or the more exotic parts of the world where some of my colleagues holiday. I would not have predicted that three nights of violence and looting on the streets of London, Birming–ham and other English cities would be the trigger for our return. Much air time on television and radio has been given over in the last few days to people giving their analysis of what is going on. Argument has raged about whether it is a display of criminality or whether it is something more profound – the youth of a social underclass gone feral.

It is a debate that has generated more heat than light so let me be quite honest about this. I have no idea what is happening on the streets of our towns and cities. I find it difficult to believe that disorder orchestrated using social media sites on smart phones is a symptom of deprivation but what is the trigger I do not know. In the absence of a proper understanding of what is happening the first priority must be to stop it. The police (the people for whom I have most sympathy in all this) must be able to make the arrests and the courts must be able to act swiftly to punish those who are responsible. My suspicion is that a great deal of what is happening is only happening because most of those responsible for it think they can do it and get off with it.

Whether it is deliberate or not we are facing a real and substantial challenge to something that has underpinned our communities for as long as we have had police forces and that is the concept of policing by consent. The knee-jerk reaction of some people (many of whom ought to have known better) to call for the deployment of the army on our streets risks doing more damage than they realise. I have always argued that we should not tackle the threat to our freedoms posed by terrorism by trashing these same freedoms. In the same way we cannot respond to a threat to our traditional policing methods by destroying them for ourselves. Likewise I was surprised to hear some people call for the suspension of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This is the sort of thing for which politicians in this country have criticised the government of China. Out of this I do see some glimmer of hope as I saw people take to the streets to clean up and repair their own communities. Government and police can only do so much. Ulti–mately, if the problem lies within our communities then the solutions must come from there too.

Alistair Carmichael MP


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