Rough justice


by Daphne Liddle

THE RECENT RIOTS IN London that spread throughout the country gave the ruling class a scare. And now the bourgeois state machine, through the courts, is responding vindictively and handing out draconian custodial sentences to hundreds of people — most of whom were first offenders.

More than 2,770 people have been arrested in connection with last week’s riots; 1,277 suspects had appeared in court by last Tuesday and 64 per cent had been remanded in custody, compared to the 2010 remand rate of 10 per cent for serious offences. And two young men have been sentenced to four years in prison for using Facebook to incite a riot that never happened in Cheshire.

Paul Mendelle QC, who used to chair the Criminal Bar Association, told BBC Five Live: “When people get caught up and act out of character, in a similar way, there is a danger that the courts themselves may get caught up in a different kind of collective hysteria — I’m not suggesting violence or anything like that — but in purporting to reflect the public mood actually go over the top and hand out sentences which are too long and too harsh.”

There have been calls for rioters who are council tenants to be evicted and the London Borough of Wandsworth has already served an eviction notice on the family of one rioter. Similarly they are calling for rioters who are on benefits to be cut off.

These proposals are in total opposition to the international convention on human rights, which bans collective punishments — punishing a whole family for the offence of one member.


And it also puts council tenants and benefit claimants in an unequal position before the law. They would be liable to a far harsher punishment than someone not a council tenant or claimant who is found guilty of an identical offence.

Rendering people homeless and destitute is a very harsh punishment — even mass murderers in prison get food and a roof over their head.

The civil rights group Liberty said: “We fail to see how leaning on magistrates to lock up youngsters and evicting entire families — innocent siblings and all — from their homes — is justified.

“Crude spite is flawed, both in theory and practice, and will lead to more prob lems than it solves. Shutting down entire phone and social media networks — punishing innocent users and those warning others of violence — is as useless as it is disproportionate.”


Prime Minister Cameron has defended the harsh sentences and claims that the courts are acting independently. But the Con-Dem Coalition and the media are exerting heavy pressure on magistrates, many of whom have been sitting day and night trying dozens of cases with little rest. What they are dishing out is anything but carefully considered justice.

And we are seeing staggering levels of hypocrisy from the Con-Dems. A letter in last Tuesday’s Evening Standard accused London Mayor Boris Johnson of breaking shop windows during a Bullingdon Club binge. And Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has a conviction for youthful arson.

But these are minor offences compared to the vandalism against the fabric of our society being committed by the cuts this government is making for ideological reasons and that are worsening the country’s economic position by closing down so much economic activity.

The Con Dems and the media claim that the soft approach to dealing with delinquent youngsters is the cause of the “break down in society”. But the opposite is true.

It is no coincidence that there were no riots under the Labour government but that when we get a Tory-led government that implements savage social cuts we do get riots.

In previous centuries London had a long history of rioting and the London Mob was famous for it. It largely disappeared in the last century as the state welfare system grew in response to demands from the organised working class and labour movement — the sort of benefits that are now disappearing.

The riots have never been a race issue, they are a class issue. Various bourgeois pundits have ascribed them to poverty and to culture but they avoid the use of the “c” word — class.

They are the inarticulate anger of the true proletariat — those who have nothing to lose but their chains and no means of making a living except by selling their labour power on a fragile and temporary basis in a market rigged against them.

The fact that some better off opportunists joined in the looting does not change this.

The tragedy is that these young people are so inarticulate, have so little political perspective and are not yet organised. But they’re learning fast.