After the London Riots, Politicians Inch Toward the Blame Game

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British Prime Minister David Cameron addresses an emergency session of Parliament on Aug. 11, 2011

British Prime Minister David Cameron could be forgiven if he breathed a small sigh of relief when he awoke on Thursday morning to be informed by aides that the country's inner cities had remained peaceful overnight. After four nights that saw cities from London to Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool ablaze as rioters vandalized and looted high streets in an apparent orgy of thieving consumerism, it was probably the best he could have hoped for.

The Prime Minister had effectively set himself a deadline of Thursday morning to regain control of the nation's streets before he delivered a crucial statement to a recalled House of Commons, setting out the measures he was taking to keep the peace and tackle the causes of the rioting. He needed a peaceful night to give his authority a boost, and thanks to a massive increase in police numbers in the worst-hit areas, and helped by some seasonal British summer downpours, he got his way.

But what MPs heard as they broke from their summer holidays to pack into the chamber of the Commons was more of the tough-guy approach the Prime Minister had displayed 24 hours earlier, when he authorized the use of plastic bullets and water hoses (which have yet to be deployed), and precious little of a long-term outlook to engage in debate over the social factors that may be behind the creation of a sizable group of disengaged, alienated, near feral young people. The old cry "Society is to blame" has never gone down well in Conservative Party circles.

So Cameron identified the growth in gang culture among inner-city youths who lack supportive family networks as a major cause of the trouble amid evidence, he claimed, that they had coordinated much of the rioting. But he did so only to the extent of announcing plans to consider blocking their access to social networks like BlackBerry messaging and Twitter. He also said he had tasked ministers with finding ways to tackle problem of gangs, specifically looking to the U.S. for advice from the likes of former New York City and Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton.

Cameron confessed that there had been too few police on the streets to begin with and that those who were on duty had at first hung back from confronting the rioters head-on. So he offered the police more power to disperse crowds, order citizens to remove face masks and even potentially impose curfews. What he flatly refused to contemplate, however, were opposition demands that he abandon plans to cut police budgets by 20% across the board, insisting he did not want a "tiresome" debate over resources. Cuts were perfectly achievable without hitting front-line policing, he declared.

This is not an argument that opposition leader Ed Miliband is going to let pass, however. He believes the public will not accept such cuts in the wake of the violence, which left many watching for hours as their streets were torched and looted, often with no sign of an effective police presence. He offered wholehearted support for the Prime Minister's "fight back" measures and agreed with the basic stance that the riots were about criminality. But apart from calling for an end to planned police budget cuts, he said the government needed to investigate the complex issues that had created the conditions for the violence. "To seek to explain is not to seek to excuse," he said.

The closest the Prime Minister got to heading that route was to promise to listen to the outcome of an inquiry into the riots, launched by a parliamentary committee this week, with the prospect of a further inquiry to follow. So far, government ministers have leaped on any remarks from opposition MPs that suggest public-spending cuts were to blame for creating the social conditions that contributed to the violence.

Both deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman and fellow party member Diane Abbott, an MP for one of the riot-hit boroughs in North London, have been accused of doing just that. But as Abbott tells TIME, it is the prospects of cuts to come that concern her constituents and cannot be discounted as contributing factors. While the impending cuts can't be used as an excuse for the riots, "they won't make things any better," she says.

It is not just opposition politicians who believe there is a need for ministers to understand the social conditions behind the riots. A Conservative MP for another affected borough, Croydon's Gavin Barwell, tells TIME that what youngsters needed most was a sense of hope and opportunities that offer a better future.

But what Britain saw from the Commons debate on Thursday was the beginning of a potential dividing line between the two main parties, which will become more clear once the initial united reaction to the violence has faded. That divide centers around the extent to which the nation's leaders are prepared to move beyond condemnation and punishment and toward a deeper understanding of how the inner cities bred such violence.