Richard North, 08/06/2020  
 


It does now seem that obedience of the law is optional. Should a large enough number of people decide that it no longer applies to them, and they are prepared wilfully to disobey it, then the role of the police is to take a "tactical decision" not to enforce it, and look the other way while mob rule prevails.

That can only be the conclusion from the statement of the scruff masquerading as Avon and Somerset police superintendent Andy Bennett, commenting on his force's lack of action yesterday when vandals pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it into Bristol Harbour. 

His excuse was that the majority of the 10,000 people attending the "Black Lives Matter" demonstration in the centre of Bristol yesterday were doing so "peacefully", even though under Covid-19 Regulations still in force, leaving home for the purpose of attending a demonstration is illegal.

Describing the demonstration as a "challenging policing operation", the buffoon Bennett actually thanked the organisers "for their efforts to encourage demonstrators to follow Government guidance". In his view, there had been "no instances of disorder". Predictably, since most police had withdrawn from the area, "no arrests were made".

Then contradicting himself as he talked to reporters, he told them: "You might wonder why we didn't intervene and why we just allowed people to put it in the docks we made a very tactical decision that to stop people from doing that act may have caused further disorder and we decided that the safest thing to do in terms of our policing tactics was to allow it to take place".

"Our policing style from the outset", he said, "was low key. We were not able to get to the statue in time to protect it and once it had actually been toppled there was clearly a pre-planned attempt to bring that down. They had grappling ropes and they had the right tools".

"So", Bennett added, "once it was down we made a decision the right thing to do was to allow it to happen because what we did not want is tension". He may live to regret those words.

However, the policeman - if that is what he was – did say that officers would be seeking to identify protesters and, "an investigation will be carried out to identify those involved". We're already collating footage of the incident, he said. That, in fact, is a not uncommon technique in the policing of major public order breaches, where evidence is gathered on the scene, allowing lawbreakers to be identified and picked up after the event, without inflaming the situation.

To some extent, therefore, Bennet may only be reflecting modern police practice, but there was something in his attitude – and indeed in the way that events unfolded – which suggested that the lawbreakers had been given free licence to roam.

There, and in London and elsewhere, that seemed to be very much the case, further adding to the view that the lockdown is effectively over. Johnson and his dismal crew have lost control and the police have given up trying – yet another area of the law from which they have retreated.

It seems, though, that lockdown-busting isn't confined to demonstrators. In The Sun, we see a report that more than half of all adults have broken the rules, a figure which rises above 60 percent amongst people aged 18 to 44.

The BBC aside, which seems to be lionising the lawbreakers – as long as they are black – the effect of this epidemic of disobedience is hard to measure directly, although respect for the law, and the police has taken a beating, while the credibility and authority of the government must have suffered a serious hit.

But, for the government, it is not just a case of sporadic (for the moment) violence and the mass challenge to the lockdown rules. Everything Johnson's administration seems to touch these days turns to dust.

In what looks like a rehearsal for the end of the transition period, for instance, the Mail reports "chaos" at Calais as thousands of "angry Britons" were stranded in the port after a last-minute rush to get ferries to the UK before the two-week enforced isolation comes into force.

Seasoned political observers may recognise in this a phenomenon that occurs in the life of every government, the so-called "switch". Before it turns, everything goes right for the government. Afterwards, nothing goes right. This weekend just gone may, in retrospect, be seen as Johnson's switch.

Basically, it has come to the point where the government can do no right, so that every decision it makes in the future can bring nothing but pain. To come is an expected employment crisis as anything up to three million people lose their jobs.

As the criticisms mount over the handling of the Covid-19 epidemic, it is likely that Johnson will take the blame for trashing the economy, and he will be faced with the Tory version of "Labour isn't working".

His greatest vulnerability, though, is an upturn in the Covid death rate. So far, the figures are declining consistently, albeit slower than would be preferred, and nobody really knows what the future will bring. But, if we do see the figures climbing again as we pass through summer, there will be many who will be pointing the figure at Johnson.

However, I suspect one of the crucial determinants will be a matter over which no politician has any control – the weather. If many people are unable to venture abroad for their holidays, their "staycations", and thus their mood, will be heavily dependent on the amount of sunshine.

Just recently, we've seen a break in the weather and we’re almost back to winter with the rain and the wind. Unsettled weather throughout the summer could leave the population morose and discontent, the ill-humour spreading into politics and affecting our judgement of our leaders.

When people are fed-up and short of money – as many will be – and there are masses of unemployed with too much time on their hands, we could be facing a "perfect storm" of discontent where the mood is so volatile that an unexpected event could easily trigger serious problems for the government.

One area particularly to watch is personal debt, an issue which has been of increasing concern for some time, long before the coronavirus crisis.

While mortgage and rent holidays – and other easing measures – have kept the wolf from the door for many with reduced income, there are ominous signs that pressure is building as bailiffs gear up for additional business.

It has been noted that local authorities have not offered payment holidays on Council Tax, and already their predatory tactics make them the most aggressive debt collectors in the field, multiplying debt through the overzealous use of bailiffs.

Not far behind them, it seems, are the banks, who are employing thousands of debt collectors in anticipation of credit card defaults. And to add to the dread, many people who acquired cars on personal contract purchases, are under pressure to meet payments.

All this points to a distinct lack of "feel good" factor in the no too distant future, and a national mood that would make it hard for any government to shine. With Johnson and his team building an unenviable reputation for incompetence and bad-faith, they can expect to have a hard time of it.

But if the prime minister then thinks that ending the transition without a trade deal with the EU is going to enhance his reputation, he is going to be disabused. He may well experience levels of unpopularity not seen in recent times.

Perhaps he might reflect on how demonstrators in London are using "Boris bikes" as weapons against the police, and wonder how many other things will be used against him. He may find that he is called upon to provide one last service to his country – every failed government needs a scapegoat, and for this he is uniquely qualified.






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