From royal fairytale to banana republic

Allister Heath
WHAT a year of contrast this has been for the UK. A few months ago, the world looked on longingly as we put on a marvellous, heart-warming show for the royal wedding, in a brilliant piece of PR highlighting the continuity and stability of Britain’s institutions, a valuable commodity in a troubled world. Today, all eyes are on us once again – but this time, the message is one of incompetence, chaos and decline.

From royal fairytale to banana republic in one summer: it has been a shameful, embarrassing disaster, not just for the tourism industries but also for foreign direct investment.

The cost in terms of lost reputation – internationally but also domestically – will be hugely higher than the £100m insurance bill. Global firms, already unnerved by over-regulation and excessive tax, will worry even more about allocating resources or key staff to the UK. Large retail chains will think twice about investing in many urban areas; the middle classes may follow suit and start moving out from many neighbourhoods. Needless to say, the human cost, in terms of deaths, injuries, shattered lives, ruined businesses, trauma and stress is immeasurable; the vast majority of the public is united in its immense anger at the savages and vandals that believe that they had the right to loot, pillage and maim. The way businesses and shops, often run by hard-working, entrepreneurial immigrant families, were targeted by low-lives was despicable; the greatest victims of these unforgivable actions were the very people who work the hardest, often for little pay, for their communities. It was so, so wrong, which is why Boris Johnson, David Cameron and also the wider political establishment are in much greater trouble than they realise.

The public’s mood has changed irrevocably; on crime and punishment, social attitudes will have hardened permanently as a result of the past week’s events. Strong speeches from the prime minister are a step in the right direction, as is the much more effective policing of the past 48 hours, but the public wants real, permanent change, not just temporary, emergency measures. A YouGov poll found that 85 per cent of the public believe that most of those taking part in the riots will go unpunished – they have lost faith in the system. This is understandable: it also reflects the perception of the thugs themselves. Criminal activity is far more rational than people believe, especially in wealthy societies such as ours: there is a lot of empirical and statistical work that shows that criminals implicitly weigh up the costs and benefits of crime. A high probability and cost of detection reduces crime, all other things equal; a low likelihood of detection, a low likely cost (such as a negligible prison sentence or a caution, as has too often been the case in the past) and a larger payoff (flat screen TVs or expensive trainers) raises it. Many of those storming shops made that very calculation this week, albeit implicitly and in some cases incorrectly.

There can be no sustainable economic recovery without security. The US police chief Bill Bratton, who pioneered zero tolerance approaches to crime reduction, should be brought in to run the Metropolitan Police. The worst of the violence is over but there needs to be permanent reforms. Social collapse and self-induced economic stagnation must no longer be tolerated. The government must act, and fast.
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