The (English and Welsh) August bank holiday is past, and most folk are back from their holidays. Yvonne the cow has been found, which must mark an end to the silly season. It’s a toss-up whether the weather has been more of a damp squib than the silliness of the summer, given the war in Libya, the economic troubles of the Euro and the Eurozone, revelations regarding the Murdoch empire and ‘Hackgate’, the bombing and shootings in Norway, or August’s rioting in some English cities. The riots excepted, however, there hasn’t been much devolution interest in these issues. As more normal political life resumes and Westminster returns for its short September sitting, it’s time to end the summer hiatus on this blog.
Unlike the summer’s other news stories, the riots do have some important devolution effects. Outside London, they were in fact highly localised – Manchester city centre and Handsworth in Birmingham were the main areas affected. I was in Leicester when they happened. Admittedly, a strong police response contained the disorder, but according to the Leicester Mercury this amounted to about 30 people, with 12 arrests made. The main damage was to a few shop windows on the road linking the railway station to the shopping centre proper. (It says something that the heights of the would-be rioters’ aspirations were Nando and Poundstretcher. In Nottingham, the main target appears to have been a school uniform outfitters’, so any looters must have been young and very pragmatic in their choice of target.) This wasn’t very much worse than a rough Friday night. Not only were Wales and Scotland unaffected, but so were many major English cities, Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool among them. Claims that Wales was excepted because of some ‘social democratic tradition’ there seem rather off the mark as a result.
However, the way the riots and response to those play out in government, and in the media, reflect the UK’s asymmetries pretty profoundly. This has become a key issue for many in Westminster and Whitehall, and for many middle-class voters in greater London, so it’s no surprise that it gets a good deal of attention. But it’s of very little interest to voters in Scotland or Wales. (The main excitement in Scotland derived from the First Minister’s attempt to make some political capital from it.) All the attention given to it by the ‘London media will attract an uninterested ‘huh?’ from an awful lot of readers, listeners and viewers (and voters). English policy responses are likely to accentuate the differences between ‘UK’ policies and those in devolved parts of the country, and the fact that something of such territorially limited interest takes so much attention will only emphasise differences across the UK. If Wales is subjected to changes in policing policy or practice as a result, though, it’s easy to expect serious opposition rather than mere indifference.
The fact that it’s UK institutions that are responding will raise, once again, questions of why it’s supposedly shared institutions that are doing so. Those questions of even more interest to those concerned with England than to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, but don’t appear to have crossed anyone’s mind in Whitehall during the post-riot discussions.