British Prime Minister Faces Questioning in House of Commons Over Rioting


2 May 2011
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LONDON — When Prime Minister David Cameron faced an emergency session of the House of Commons on Thursday to account for his government’s handling of some of Britain’s darkest days since World War II, he was, in a sense, a man on trial.
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Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Prime Minister David Cameron leaving 10 Downing Street on Thursday. For two and a half hours, Mr. Cameron took questions from lawmakers.
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Mr. Cameron had already taken a battering earlier in the summer with a series of revelations in a roiling phone hacking scandal that cast doubt on his judgment in hiring as his spokesman a former tabloid editor now arrested on suspicion of hacking. The scandal exposed close and collusive relationships between Britain’s political elite, the police and the news media. And as rampaging mobs swept through at least 20 of Britain’s biggest cities and towns with a fury that took the police days to bring under control, Mr. Cameron lingered on vacation in a villa in Tuscany before returning home.

Some British commentators compared the moment to 30 years ago, when the stewardship of another Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was threatened by the last major riots to convulse the nation. But this, many in Britain agreed, was more serious: the damage far greater in wrecked communities, shattered city centers and blighted lives, and in seemingly halting, even timorous, policing. Not least, too, there has been the blow to Britain’s pride as a country that has viewed itself as a haven of stability.

For two and a half hours on the Commons floor, Mr. Cameron took questions from anguished, and often angry, lawmakers. They demanded to know why, on the first nights of the rioting, their constituents had been left to cower in fear in their homes and elsewhere while police officers in riot gear stood back, armed only with nightsticks, under orders not to engage the rioters.

It was the longest inquisition of its kind that any prime minister has faced in living memory. Not even Winston Churchill, often described as the greatest Commons man in history, endured such a protracted grilling. But when it was over, there were signs that the political winds against Mr. Cameron were shifting as the mood of the nation had swung sharply to the right in a way that may play to the Conservatives’ traditional posture as the country’s law-and-order party.

Labour Party lawmakers, only a few weeks ago emboldened by the phone hacking scandal, were reluctant to challenge more than obliquely Mr. Cameron’s insistence that the rioting was “a matter of criminality, pure and simple,” with “absolutely no excuse” in terms of joblessness, racial alienation and social deprivation in the neighborhoods from which many of the rioters came.

“Today, we stand shoulder to shoulder, united,” said Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.

Mr. Cameron outlined a series of tough measures that would expand police powers in emergencies but that also seemed in tune with the mood of the public and lawmakers, at least for now.

He spoke of government authorization for the police to use plastic bullets, water cannons and curfews. He also outlined contingency plans for the army to step in to take over some police functions, including guarding public buildings, to free up police officers for riot detail. He said the police would have wider powers to prevent rioters from wearing face coverings, the almost universal choice among those who formed the squads of rioters in recent days.

More controversially, Mr. Cameron said the government was working on measures that would stop rioters from using social media — Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger, principally — to coordinate and direct their “horrific actions.” Borrowing a leaf from authoritarian governments that Britain has been quick to criticize in the past for similar measures — China, Egypt and Libya, among others — he said his government had concluded that “it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

Free-speech groups said restrictions on the use of social media or smartphones would be difficult to enforce and could violate basic freedoms.

“It seems like a bizarre and kind of knee-jerk reaction by the government,” said Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship, a magazine that covers free-speech issues. “We’ve seen this kind of thing time and time again, especially with young people, when it comes to technology. Now it’s social networks and smartphones. A few years ago it was video games. Before that it was horror films.”

-new york times
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