A daily bulletin of news & opinion

11 August 2011

Now that much of the dust has settled (not that the scars have healed), a note on the words used in the riot-heat of this week. It might sound glib to deconstruct the language of the rampage, but words can be worth a cessation of hostilities or a call to arms. Words could have been a jolt of reason or a prompt to discipline – but weren’t. Words, anyway, are all we can say of what we saw of this social mess.

Weakened by the language of the government’s “respect agenda”, words failed our leaders this week. Having told the nation, “we don’t do water cannons, we rely on consent”, the British home secretary Theresa May vacillated, wheezing about “custody suites” in an interview with the BBC’s most Spanish of Inquisitors, John Humphrys. A custody suite sounds sweet, doesn’t it? It sounds en suite, for a start. It sounds weak. What happened to a cell?

“Policing by consent” – a cornerstone of Metropolitan Police practice since the Service’s (it’s no longer a Force) foundation in 1829 – is a philosophical strength, but consent was a boat that had long sailed by the time the trouble in Tottenham had gone viral to become a pandemonium pandemic. When you can no longer rely on consent, home secretary? Stick to your word and roll out the super-soakers.

As the world watched London’s inner-city streets and its leafy suburbs burn, “consent policing” was treating rioters with undeserved respect. The language of cultural nicety was shackling officers to the bare minimum of intervention when principled action was required.

When David Cameron arrived on the scene, he sounded more headmasterly than prime ministerial. “If you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment” sounded like “straight to bed and no pudding”. His promise of “robust police action” and “full force of the law” was the cohesive language needed the night before the morning after. And will full force be used? The 10-year maximum sentence for rioting might be an example to parade.

The language of the rioters was aggregated on Twitter – that occasional display-case for online, one-line wit. But there weren’t many Eve of St Crispin’s Day rallying cries here, either. “Fuck the feds!” echoed across iPhones and BlackBerrys across the land, signalling that British thugs aspire to the language and manners of American homeboys. Even proto gangsta-rappers NWA, not fans of the Feds, recorded “Fuck the Police“. Their “Straight Outta Compton” sounds more genuine than the selfish trainer-looting of the “socially excluded” in Croydon.

When he was French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy described 2005’s Paris rioters as racaille – “scum” or “rabble” – and that word was deemed to fan the flames of further violence. Thank God our own home secretary didn’t use a phrase that implied something not-quite-human, an amorphous, savage thing (despite the striking similarities). But promising scum a suite? That’s displaying the full force of feeble language.


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