The publication of research into the thinking and motives (or lack of it and lack of them) of the summer rioters stimulated horrifying pictures of apparently mindless vandalism and thuggery on our television screens last night. The point of the research was that the views of the rioters had not been, but needed to be, heard. This does not, of course, condone their thuggery or justify the breakdown of law and order.
A common theme expressed from all parts of the country was antagonism towards the police.
It is a cliché of the left in Britain that most evils in our society can be traced back to Mrs Thatcher. This is unfair. After all it was a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dennis Healy, who introduced monetarism, and a Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who began the authoritarian centralisation of our educational system.
However, my own personal unease about the police and their methods goes back to Mrs Thatcher and the miners' strike. I can still picture in my mind police being bussed from other areas to "keep order" outside closed pits, and, from the safety of their buses, taunting the striking, and thus unpaid, miners by waving through the windows their five pound notes from overtime pay. Miners bussing themselves to other areas were illegally stopped on the motorways. It was at this point, I believe that the police ceased to be seen as agents of the public and guardians of the peace, and became an arm of the government attacking what the government, but not most of the public, saw as "the enemy within."
This breakdown of trust and respect has been fuelled by numerous other incidents: trials rigged and people convicted on false evidence (eg the Birmingham Six); vital evidence mysteriously lost when the police themselves are accused (if I heard him correctly the Tottenham MP David Lammy claimed on TV last night that 300 people had died in police custody and not one police officer has been convicted as a result); decent citizens exercising their legal right to protest "kettled" for hours without water or lavatories; police identification numbers hidden during such protests; police helicopters deliberately circling over the platform at political rallies so that the speakers could not be heard; the running sore of "stop and search" targeted at the young black and Asian communities. It is even argued that the police response to the original disturbance was deliberately held back as a message to the government that police numbers should not be cut.
I acknowledge that the police have a difficult job , that they are exposed daily to insult and possible danger, and I should not like to be one. However, dificult as it may be, the police need to make a determined effort to try to restore "Dixon of Dock Green" relationships.
One of the greatest tributes paid to the quality of Britain's civilised society is a story told by Desmond Tutu. As a young black man studying theology in London he claims that he and his black colleagues would often ask a policeman "the way" even when they knew exactly where they were and where they were going, just for the sheer joy of the experience that not only did the policeman not arrest them or demand to see their passes, but actually called them "Sir!"
This is a mountain the police need to start climbing.