The nervousness of the Latvian police encapsulates how the recession is destroying Europe’s idea of itself. They did not know how to respond when an apparently organised group broke off from a demonstration against credit squeezes and spending cuts.
The rioters pelted officers with cobblestones and chunks of ice as they tried to reach the parliament; they also smashed up boutiques, a bank and the finance ministry. Even Aigars Stokenbergs, a left-wing politician who organised the main protest, blamed the police for not being tough enough.
When Latvia escaped from the Soviet empire in 1991, it thought it was joining a boring but contented Europe of peace and plenty. If Latvians expected trouble, they expected it from Russia, not from crowds infuriated by the removal of the promise of affluence, cursing the free institutions which the imprisoned peoples of the Soviet bloc longed for in the days of occupation.
If the confusion in Baltic states is great, it is nothing compared with the turmoil in the Icelandic psyche. The news agencies reported last week that Icelandic “riot police” fired pepper spray at furious demonstrators outside the parliament building in Reykjavik. They rather overcooked the story. In truth, the Icelandic riot squad is on a par with the Icelandic anti-terrorist branch, NCIS or SWAT team, which is to say it does not exist.
Iceland had been a model Nordic social democracy without the need for a coercive apparatus. Crime was so low that in 2007, the prison population stood at 104. Many of the 700 police officers were part-timers. Until its demented financiers bankrupted the island, the idea that they would be dousing their neighbours with pepper spray was unthinkable. Britain, by contrast, seems far better prepared for social turbulence. Since Michael Howard and Tony Blair began an anti-crime arms race in 1993, a defining feature of our politics under governments of left and right has been announcements of crackdowns on lawlessness.
Gordon Brown does not play the hard man as ostentatiously as Tony Blair did, but authoritarian measures keep flowing out of Whitehall.
Last week, I received a long and convincing analysis of how the government’s apparently feminist campaign against prostitution will result in more women going to prison, complaints that ministers want to cover up deaths at the hands of state officials by holding inquests in secret and yet more worries about officials invading citizens’ privacy.
I have received a similar level of complaints from prison reformers and civil libertarians every week for as long as I can remember.
Think what you will about them, but you might believe that a powered-up police should be able to protect the public. You might be further comforted by the conventional wisdom of British criminology which holds that violence and recessions do not go together. In good times, people have the money to get drunk in pubs and get into fights, the theory runs. When the economy busts, burglaries and thefts from cars increase, but street assaults decline.
They may have done in the past, but Harry Fletcher, spokesman for the probation officers’ union, points out that in the recessions of the early Eighties and Nineties crime was not as driven by drugs as it is today. According to his estimates, 70% of repeat offenders are addicts. Prices in the market for stolen goods are falling as fast as prices in every other market. If it takes two laptops to pay for the weekly drugs’ shop rather than one, frantic addicts will start attacking people in the streets for their wallets and purses.
Pedants will object that Fletcher is talking about criminal rather than the political violence Europe is witnessing, but the dividing line between the two is far from clear to me. Europe’s troubles began in December in Greece, another country which thought it had become boringly normal when it escaped from dictatorship and joined the European Union. The initial cause was the police shooting of a teenage boy. The violence turned into a wider protest against youth unemployment and a corrupt and nepotistic political elite which gave up control of economic policy and, hence, the ability to alleviate recession when it joined the euro.
I am not sure that an Athens shopkeeper would appreciate the distinction between the political and the criminal. What to him is the difference between thieves looting his shop as a protest against police brutality and thieves looting his shop because they want something for nothing? The fact remains that they loot his store.
In any case, many of the predictions being kicked around by our police for crime in the British recession sound like organised violence: ram raiding and muggers working in gangs rather than on their own. Again, the naive might think the police should be able to stop them because as well as giving officers more powers, Britain spends a larger proportion of national wealth on law and order than any other advanced country.
But if I say that Gordon Brown’s Treasury was in charge when the booty was divided, you should be able to guess that public money was wasted on an epic scale. To take the most egregious example, although Brown increased the budget of the probation service by 21% between 2001 and 2007, the resources went into the deep pockets of the bureaucratic middle class. The Home Office enlarged the number of managers by 63% while reducing the number of frontline probation staff.
Now the party’s over and cuts are coming. With 84,000 inmates, the prisons are full to capacity and ministers are telling governors they must start losing guards. Sources in the courts meanwhile predict that 3,000 court staff could be forced out. Even if the police catch criminals, detectives will face long delays bringing them before a jury and the prison system will not have spare cells if a judge sends them down.
For all the differences between Britain and Europe, our authorities look likely to greet the disorder of recession with all the nervous bafflement of the Icelandic “riot squad”.