John Harris

Journalist & Author

Who are the real looters – rioters or MPs? | John Harris

You help yourself to hundreds of pounds worth of fancy chairs, rugs, lamps – are you not in the same moral ballpark as looters?

David Starkey’s now-infamous claim that the recent riots somehow saw white people “becoming black” is arrant nonsense – and this summer’s disturbances actually reflect an English tradition that dates back centuries, to times when just about all the occupants of these islands were caucasian.

One thinks, for example, of the London apprentice riots of the 1590s, 1688’s Bawdy House riots, 1769’s Spitalfields riots, 1780’s Gordon riots, the Swing riots and Bristol riots that took place between 1830 and 1831 – or any number of other disturbances, most of which resulted in a part of the riot-script now being followed to the letter: a great spate of draconian punishment, forever captured in the English archetype of the bloody assizes, a phrase first used in the wake of the Monmouth rebellion.

So, we now watch once again as good sense is set aside. Those two herberts from Cheshire are given four years each for incapably trying to foment disturbances that didn’t actually happen (as the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire puts it: “Bad drivers who kill kids do less – so do yobs who end a life with a punch then say they never meant to kill anyone.”)

The Mancunian mother-of-two Ursula Nevin is facing five months inside for handling a pair of shorts, looted from a city-centre shop by a friend. Twenty-three-year-old Nicholas Robinson took a £3.50 case of water from the Brixton branch of Lidl: he was credited with previous good character and credible remorse, but is still going down for six months. A 19-year-old Mancunian named Stefan Hoyle was caught in possession of a looted violin: no previous, but he still gets four months in a young offenders’ institution. Obviously, there will be much more of this.

In response, it is worth highlighting yet another English tradition: that of cant and double standards on the part of some of those fond of whipping up authoritarian storms. And as jails fill up and politicians continue to talk tough, it’s perhaps illuminating to go back through the dossier of MPs’ expenses claims. There are interesting moral questions here, which we’ll come on to – but first, some examples from the weeks and months that followed the first news of the expenses scandal.

You could certainly be forgiven for comparing the fate of the Facebook pair to the MPs jailed for fraudulently taking tens of thousands from the public purse – whose average jail sentence came in at around 18 months. But it’s arguably even more instructive to look at those who merely paid back hefty sums for claims they clearly thought had been indefensible, many of whom are now cheerleading for the sentencing craziness that has seized the courts.

The then shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, lately heard bemoaning an “absence of discipline in the home and in the school”, agreed to pay back £7,000, spent on furniture and fittings for his house in north Kensington. They included a £331 Chinon armchair, a Manchu cabinet for £493 and a pair of “elephant lamps” worth £134.50. Also: a £750 Loire table, a Camargue chair worth £432 and a birdcage coffee table that cost £238.50.

David Cameron repaid a £680 home repair bill. Oliver Letwin returned £2,000, the cost of repairing a leaking pipe under his home tennis court.

Hazel Blears stood up in the Commons last week and said:

“For me, the politics of law and order and of security and protecting our citizens have never been about the difference between right and left; they have always been about the difference between right and wrong.”

She should know: in the summer of 2009, you may recall the iconic image of her holding up a cheque for £13,332 in repaid capital gains tax, having apparently come to the conclusion that it wasn’t hers to spend.

Keith Vaz, the chairman of the home affairs select committee that will play a key role in investigating the riots, made a number of purchases that cost more than set out in parliamentary guidelines, including a £550 rug – and after questions about claims for a home 12 miles from Westminster, also repaid a handsome £18,949.82.

All this leads on to the kind of questions one hears in undergraduate ethics tutorials, or on Radio 4’s Moral Maze. Of course, rioting involves criminal damage and disorder. There again, as the Nevin case proves, plenty of people are currently being sent to jail for eyebrow-raising stretches for offences that involved neither.

And so the question arises: if you effectively help yourself to fancy chairs, rugs, tennis court pipe repairs and whatever else, and your wrongdoing is sufficiently clear-cut that you volunteer to pay back the money, might you be in the same moral ballpark? If so, might that be proof of the fact that if the riots are part of some “slow-motion moral collapse” (cheers, Cameron), the people in charge had better take their share of the blame? And if that’s the case, might our politicians find a slightly more nuanced way of holding forth?

In fact, come to think of it, all this might suggest a more sensible way of dealing with the riots’ aftermath than cramming our prisons to bursting point. I’ll quote from a recent letter to the Guardian from one Michael Trevallion of Birmingham:

“In view of the huge numbers of riot offenders now clogging up the magistrates’ courts and threatening to overburden our prisons, why has no one suggested offering an amnesty for those convicted of stealing goods up to an estimated value of, say, £500? This could be called the Hazel Blears option: an offender in full public view hands into the court a cheque for the amount of the goods stolen.”

Brilliant, you have to agree.

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