Riots: Remember the Four Meal Rule

Britain is only ever four meals away from anarchy. So says MI5 and they know a thing or two about public order

Britain is only ever four meals away from anarchy. So says MI5 and they know a thing or two about public order. It's a powerful maxim and one that reminds us that lurking in the inner recesses of the minds of many of the people who might pass us every day in the street is the thought that given half a chance, they'd change all this.

Most of the time, most people don't riot. Regular meals, satellite TV, reasonable prospects and faint hope keep anarchic feelings at bay. Rioting takes effort and planning.

But apparent calm can change all too quickly. Witness the behaviour after a cargo ship spewed up its contents on the south coast of England a few years ago. Within hours, apparently respectable people could be seen carting off consumer goods. One chap trundled off with a motorbike.

Other people's behaviour often determines our own. We make think we're individuals but given the right circumstances, many of us could behave badly.

We talk about the air of respectability because often it's no more than that - ephemeral, fleeting and easily blown away should conditions change.

Where the tectonic plates of social inequality and personal disappointment rub up against each other, there will be problems. There will even be riots from time to time but we shouldn't turn such dramas into crises of confidence.

But given the flimsiness of public order, we need to be careful about how we react to interruptions and challenges. Our core message needs to be simple: a small group of people are ruining it for the rest of us. Rioters must always be portrayed as a senseless minority and governments must act quickly to restore order - to take all necessary measures.

This government has done so and order is restored.

But messages after the event are also important. The things that politicians say matter. They get coverage and can define periods of time and even whole eras.

Of course, they know this, which is why so many adopt strong positions during difficult times. Crises create opportunities to define what is right and what is wrong in a way that is difficult during calmer periods. We, as citizens, are more likely to coalesce around a single view where alternative realities are stark and frightening.

When people are screaming in streets, setting fire to buildings and stealing our things we just want life to return to normal. Then, the imperfection of our every day life takes on a new and attractive hue.

But it's very easy to go too far. I'd counsel against saying that everything is broken for two reasons. One: although much could be a lot better, it's a lot better here than in many other countries. How much do we really want to change? Remember change is very threatening and can create unwanted anxiety.

And two: fixing things is harder than it looks. Even if we could define, for example, what good parenting looks like, it's very hard to create it in reality. Bringing up children can't be done by reading a book. Or even many. Not everyone reads. People need examples - and they need to see them every day. We imitate our way into adult life. We learn by osmosis.

And don't say that everything is broken. It may well be but fixing it is beyond the wit of man. We can't even persuade people to give up smoking never mind become perfect parents.

The same could be said of Enquiries. By all means hold them but don't make a meal of it. Quite apart from anything else, there's a workload issue. If everyone's carrying out reviews and enquiries, who's going to be doing the doing?

On top of that, when they report, the resulting media coverage can remind us all of times we'd rather forget.

Of course, politicians need to be seen to be doing something. "Something must be done", as former Prime Minister, Ted Heath reminded us, is a powerful political driver. Dangers arise when the actions that are taken potentially make things worse.

The global messages need to be simple: we will look and understand the causes of these riots; where there are lessons, we will learn them; but we will not allow anyone to disturb, disrupt or threaten our daily lives - in Britain, that is sacrosanct; we will take all necessary measures to restore and maintain our quality of life.

And then, leaders must make all efforts to ensure that people can always eat when they feel hungry.


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