This is irredeemably bleak. Within a handful of weeks, Brixton follows Handsworth and Tottenham follows Brixton. Worse, there is a feeling of momentum, of gathering violence. Now, at Tottenham, the rioters have guns and knives as well as a hail of petrol bombs. One policeman is dead, and others lie direly wounded. The Metropolitan Commissioner talks of plastic bullets, tear gas and water cannons whilst the Home Secretary holds hard to his seemingly mishakable conviction that these are gangs of criminals, to be cowed and caught and locked away : all we know and all we need to know. Whereupon Sir Kenneth Newman adds a further gloss. Tottenham didn't just happen. It was orchestrated and prepared. Sinister elements, first mentioned in Brixton last week, emerge from a mist of hints. Catch them and, perhaps, perhaps, there will be an end to it.

So events spiral downwards, and it is hard even to draw breath. But let us try because - with the simmering of Pecknam and Toxteth added in - there is now a pattern to the violence. It began randomly in Handsworth, from a minor brush between police and a motorist. It developed in Brixton, where Mrs Cherry Groce was shot by a policeman. And Tottenham erupted after the death of Mrs Cynthia Jarrett, presumably from heart failure, whilst police were searching her house. The precise chemistry of Handsworth, remains slightly elusive. Not so in Brixton: the shooting of Cherry Groce was an horrendous mistake. As for Mrs Jarrett, it depends who you believe: her family, with their appalling tales of police callousness, or the officers themselves, with their testimony of a simple job, sadly done. In each case, though, there was wild neighbourhood antagonism towards the police. In each case it led to outrageous violence. Without judging the rights or wrongs of any situation, one incident was enough to trigger either immediate or calculated affray.

It is not necessarily what the police do in areas of inner city deprivation, the fact that they are thought to have done something is a lighted match in a hayloft. There remain, after 1981, areas of our great cities where confrontation is only a ratty word or a hapless deed away.

Blaming the police, in such dismal circumstances, is like shooting the messenger when he brings bad news. The real bad news is that we have become a nation of tinderbox ghettoes. The police, banging their riot shields and reeling blood-spattered away, may be the front line of society's defences against anarchy. But they are also the victims of a situation not wholly of their own making. Dismayingly, Mr Douglas Hurd refuses to let that broader context be glimpsed. He has his own community leaders in Blackpool this week to worry about. They will want him to be tough and because the Home Secretary, after Handsworth, has become stuck in the groove of individual police inquiries into individual incidents, he may have little alternative but to dish out the red meat.

The problem for those who seek to find another way is precisely this gathering tidal wave of events. There is nothing firm to hang on to Britain's Afro-Caribbean population tragically lacks the kind of middle-class leadership which has already begun to develop amongst the Asians here. There is precious little sense of community, and so few commmunity leaders who can speak for - or reach - people like the five hundred masked youths who rampaged around Broadwater Farm. Nor does there seem a single black politician with the statemanship or foresight to wan where this spiral of violence will lead. Organised violence? Outside agitation? Probably. But it takes more than a vanload of infiltrators to hold hundreds of police at bay. Copy-cat criminality? But there is so much already to copy. You wait with a sinking heart for the first plastic bullet to hit the first bystanding child, for you know what will come next.

Mr Hurd has probably left it too late. But, even so, he should do now what he ought to have done in the first moments after Handsworth. Calling for Lord Scarmam (or his judicial heir and successor) is, in a way, the expected reflex gesture by a beleaguered establishment. But still, it is the right thing to do. Scarman drew a thin, grey line below the 1981 riots because - on the ground in Brixton - he became a symbol of official concern to tackle the roots of despair. At the close, he had many lessons for police and the community. Some of them were learned. And he had one over-riding message for the Government. That has not been heeded.

Lord Scarman saw the rootless youth of the largely black inner city areas as people who had to be given a stake in a society: something to work for, something to hope for. That meant a massive shift of resources. It has not happened. there have been projects a'plenty: and much devoted toil. But look at the wider figure look at Lambeth, of which Brixton forms such a restless part. Since 1981, unemployment has doubled new housebuilding has halved central government aid is pounds 15 millions down. That is what we have done to our inner cities. Tinkered amid growing neglect. Scarman laid out the grim choices once, and Whitehall tuned a deaf ear. If Mr Hurd were a strong man he would seek fresh evidence to plonk at Nigel Lawson's door.

But apparently such approaches are not expedient. Apparently any cause and effect between violence and unemployed deprivation is not to be risked. Such investigations as there are are so limited that they can't even embrace Sir Kenneth Newman's mobile agitators, moving between ghettoes and separate inquiries. These youths in the dark are merely criminals lock them away in one of Lord Glenarthur's new prisons.

Of course the killers of Broadwater Farm and the looters of Coldharbour Lane must be caught. Criminal deeds: criminal punishments. But there is no solution here. No attempt to give a fabric of society to neighbourhoods where isolation and poverty dominate, areas of foredoomed losers in the political game of winners and losers. Mr Neil Kinnock had a good phrase for it all last week: government by 'lethargy and conflict.' That rings, day by day, more horribly true.



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