Do we want water cannon on the streets of mainland Britain? It seems that a surprising coalition of policing interests do. Boris has said he will pay for them in London. Chief police officers have said they do. Now Tom Windsor, Chief Inspector of Constabularies and champion of consent-based policing, sees no problem with them.
London’s senior officer, Bernard Hogan-Howe, says they would be rarely seen and rarely used. Tom Windsor dodges the issue by saying he sees nothing controversial in having them, only in how they are deployed.
If we don’t plan to use them, why buy them? And if we do plan to buy them, let’s be clear how they will be used. Because, where London leads, the rest will follow.
Much of this began with the riots of 2011. Officers also cite the Countryside Alliance protests in Parliament Square in 2004 and student protests as examples of where cannon could have been used.
I have no sympathy with the professional hand-wringers of the left, who seem to see something sinister in the very concept of defending social order. Their soft-headed objections to tactics like kettling force the police to seek extravagant answers in more kit. I fail to see, though, how water cannon help in any of these scenarios.
It’s hard to see how soaking the stalwarts of the shires will do much to enhance police support among those who should be their natural allies. Would the police have used cannon against their own protest march to Parliament on pensions and pay in May 2012?
What will this do to relations with disaffected urban communities, with the added complication of ethnic and cultural divides?
Cannon, we are told, are about defence – protecting buildings or monuments or keeping a crowd away from police lines. That’s exactly the point. What frustrated the public about the London riots was the failure of the police to get stuck in when they were needed. It was left to members of the public to stand up to marauding kids on their own streets.
How would water cannon help in a repeat – God forbid – of London 2011? They are cumbersome, slow and can only be in one place at a time. Would this encourage commanders to risk taking on a crowd early? Or would their understandable desire to avoid risk cause them to wait while a crowd that might have been controlled grows in confidence and becomes a mob that requires even greater force to master.
Like tanks in modern warfare, water cannon give an impression of strength but expose weakness. They are clumsy beasts for narrow urban spaces. We live in an age of instant mass communication. Crowds can appear and disappear in minutes. Cannon would either become an instant target or be left isolated as protestors melt away to appear elsewhere.
Far better to spend the money on monitoring communications, leadership and understanding how to keep ahead of protestors.
Perhaps careful deployment rules can limit the dangers, but I doubt it. When you have something, the temptation is to use it. And when what you have is a hammer, your problems start to look like a nail. Has the level of public disorder really risen so much – or at all – as to justify this escalation in tactics?
Water cannon will do little to control flash-mob rioting and a lot to inflame legitimate protests. They will not help British policing regain its traditions and place in society.
We should think very carefully before signing up to them.