UK Riots: Are sentences fair?

Written by Frank Manning

For British society to return to normal and remove the fear of gang violence from the public, these sentences had to happen.

The debate over the sentences handed down to the rioters who ran rampant through London has sparked a heated argument over whether they are deserved or too harsh.

However, it has not followed the usual split between left and right. Traditional elements of the Conservative party have lauded the sentences as a return to hard-line punishment of criminals, yet libertarians have urged caution against imposing authoritarian penalties simply to placate a baying media and the 81 percent of the public who believe the punishments are either “about right” or “too soft”.

Four years in jail for inflammatory comments on Facebook – which had no actual consequences other than to distract police – appears ludicrous at first when compared to the short sentences we usually read about in the tabloid press. They are even more shocking when considered in light of the debacle earlier this year when it was suggested rapists could be out of prison in less than two years.

The reasoning behind this approach to sentencing is about more than just public opinion though, despite the fact it played an obvious part.

David Cameron sensed the public mood well and commended the sentences as a strong message to would-be rioters, leaving Ed Miliband with little room to manoeuvre. Towing the tough sentencing line would please a public seeking retribution but would risk angering Guardian readers and cheerleaders such as Polly Toynbee. Meanwhile, denouncing them as unfair would undo the pressure Labour have managed to put the government under concerning the supposedly soft approach Ken Clarke has been taking to justice reform.

It is possible, though, to look beyond these opposing viewpoints and come to a different conclusion.

In terms of setting a precedent for future sentences, four years for the two Facebook troublemakers is clearly unsustainable. What they wrote was idiotic, ill-judged and ill-timed, but if incendiary comments on social networks lead to four years in prison, the cost of the Ministry of Justice may dwarf even the monolithic NHS.

However, these sentences are not for the criminals themselves. The latter are the unfortunate recipients of a stark warning to society in general that reckless criminal behaviour will not be tolerated. Whatever caused these riots, they were able to grow exponentially due to a sense that law and order had broken down and criminality would go unpunished.

The usual suspects of Polly Toynbee, Laurie Penny, Harriet Harman and Jody McIntyre have effectively given carte blanche to any disaffected youth who feels the world owes them a living, excusing any and all behaviour even when it destroys communities.

It’s noticeable that discourse with the rioters themselves has been limited to brief awkward interviews for the evening news. Instead, political commentators have used them to further their own world views without asking the permission of those affected.

Considering the excuses the liberal-Left have been so keen to espouse, tough sentences are the last bastion available to instil personal responsibility to a minority of young people who have been taught far too much about their rights and not enough about their responsibilities.

Without proof that the justice system can and will punish criminals on the news and on the front page of every newspaper, we could witness the exact same events the next time the police need to use force or carry out a stop & search.

From a libertarian point of view it is unfortunate that a small group of muppets have to feel more than the normal force of the law. But for British society to return to normal and remove the fear of gang violence from the public, these sentences had to happen.

Frank Manning is a Researcher for the civil liberties pressure group, ‘Big Brother Watch’ and writes in a personal capacity.


Can economic policies explain the social unrest?

Cameron: Pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick.

By Steve Tolley

The political argument over whether Government cuts fuelled the violence seen in London and across the country in the past few days has begun in earnest.

In a heated exchange on Newsnight last night, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman told Education Secretary Michael Gove that “short-sighted” Government policies like “cutting” the Education Maintenance Allowance, the trebling of tuition fees and closing job centres were adding to a situation where young people feel they are not being listened to.

Gove said it is “ludicrous” to claim people looting shops and burning down buildings were concerned about the “reform” of the EMA. He accused her of “speaking out of both sides of her mouth” for blaming Government policy after saying she wanted to elevate the debate above party politics.

Harman said: “The truth is the Government should be on the side of young people. And you are not…We want people to have opportunities although nothing justifies people who have not got opportunities taking and robbing.”

Gove responded: “I do not want any more of your double dealing, out of one side of your mouth saying you are going to show solidarity with the Government and with legitimate forces of order and on the other side try to make partisan points.”

There was widespread rioting, looting and arson in London on Sunday and Monday night and while 16,000 police on the streets last night meant the city was relatively quiet, trouble flared up in Manchester, three men died in Birmingham and a police station was fire bombed in Nottingham.


In his statement yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron said the “sickening scenes” were “criminality, pure and simple”. During the election he spoke about failures in education, political disenchantment and social breakdown leading to Britain’s being a broken society, although he dropped the leitmotif over fears the negative message would turn off voters.

Alongside Cameron’s strong rhetoric against the rioters, he has today also acknowledged that social problems have played a role in creating the violence that has exploded over the past few days. “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken, but frankly sick,” he said. An interesting map on the Financial Times’ website contrasts the areas of London that have seen the worst violence with youth unemployment figures and high deprivation levels.

Nobel Prize winner Professor Joseph Stiglitz was among the first to wade into the debate in an interview with Channel 4 news. He said when people see nothing but long term unemployment they lose faith in society. He suggested that while a contributing factor, the picture is more complex than simply cuts leading to violence.

He said: “Our market economy is not working and our Governments are not succeeding in helping the market do what it has to do. In too many countries they are going in the opposite direction showing very little compassion. I worry the UK is one of those countries and that is very much connected to some of the scenes in London.”

On Thursday, a recalled Parliament will be the stage for a tussle for the public’s hearts and minds over links between economic policy and social unrest. The civil disorder will be debated and George Osborne will give a statement on the economy in the midst of volatile stock markets, falling growth projections, the Eurocrisis and the US credit rating downgrade.

The Government’s understandable hard-line could give way to ’Broken Society’ thinking if and when the violence recedes. Neutralising Labour’s line of attack will not be easy without finding other factors to pin the violence on, whether that is dissatisfaction with the police, poor discipline at home or other long-term social problems. But as a political historian, Cameron will know that a Prime Minister not in control of the streets does not remain PM for long, so for now he is showing his teeth. His top priority is ensuring and convincing people they are safe in their communities.

Gove told Harman the argument she was making was below her and the Labour Party. If Labour are careful, they could capitalise politically. But the party must be sure that in looking to explain the violence it is not accused of political opportunism with even Labour bloggers on Labourlist calling on the party to put politics aside and get behind Cameron until order is restored.

If the party can convince voters Government policy has in any way contributed to the violence, the days of the nasty party could return to haunt the Conservatives, adding extra stress to the coalition. But it will be a very difficult political move to get right. With emotion running high, get it wrong and the wrath of Michael Gove will be the least of Ed Miliband’s worries.