Water cannon on the streets of London: Does it matter what Londoners think?

ImagePhotograph: Kerim Okten/EPA

Has anybody ever asked for your opinion and then done the complete opposite of what you suggest? It often happens to me when giving directions: I must look geographically competent from several yards away, but up close I clearly don’t know my left from my right.

You may be surprised to hear that Boris Johnson himself, The Mayor of London, recently asked for your opinion about something. He’s had his eye on some new toys you see: three large water cannon to be deployed on the streets of London in the event of “riots or other serious and exceptional public disorder“. Here is a brief introduction to water cannon and the kind of damage they can cause [warning: contains a graphic image]:

Unfortunately Johnson’s idea of a consultation process is akin to whispering “Can you direct me to the British Library?” when you’re standing alone in your hotel room. How many Londoners actually knew they could make their views heard?

It gets worse. Under the rosy illusion that they might actually influence Johnson’s decision, some Londoners did  make contributions during the six week consultation period, but Johnson has ignored them. Despite overwhelming opposition against the introduction of water cannon, Johnson has gone ahead and bought them anyway.

Not only that, The Mayor’s Office has had the tenacity to spin the findings of the consultation in their favour, declaring that Londoners are

strongly in favour of the introduction of the availability of water cannons.

It is a clumsy statement, but its also grossly misleading as I will outline below. If you wish, you can read the results of the consultation for yourself here.

Firstly, the main finding of the consultation (which The Mayor’s Office press release has neglected to mention) was that 98% (2,547) of people  who e-mailed in were opposed to the introduction of water cannon compared to  2% (59) of people who supported the idea.Those in opposition told Johnson they were concerned that water cannon

  • Are dangerous military-style weapons that have no place in a democratic country with a reputation for tolerant, unarmed policing.
  • Could cause serious injury
  • Could escalate violent situations.
  • Were symbols of oppression, fear, and a ‘police state’.
  • Could damage the relationship between the police and the public.
  • Are indiscriminate, affecting not only ‘genuine’ targets but also innocent protesters or even bystanders who happen to be nearby.
  • Could deter people from protesting, suppressing the legitimate right to protest peacefully.
  • Would probably not be effective on London’s narrow streets or in fast-moving public disorder situations like those seen in August, 2011, a view that has also been stated by the police.
  • Would not necessarily be used ‘as a last resort’ as the police were promising. The police have broken similar promises before about kettling, tasers, and ‘stop and search’.

How has the Mayor’s Office managed to spin this in their favour? The consultation process also involved an online poll of 4,223 people from which they have extracted the following statistic:

over two thirds of respondents (68 per cent) were supportive of the use of water cannon in limited circumstances.

In fact this is seriously misleading. The exact question that respondents were asked was:

Do you agree that there is a ‘small, limited role’ for water cannons in dealing with the most serious public disorder on the streets of London? Serious public disorder being where there is potential for loss of life , serious injury of widespread destruction to property.

Clearly this question has been phrased in such a way that it is difficult to say no. It’s a bit like me asking you if it would be ok to fumigate your house in the event of severe infestation by poisonous, furniture-eating ants. It is hard to say no, even if you’re not a big fan of fumigation.

Critically, there is no guarantee that water cannon would only be used in the type of circumstances described in the question. During the student tuition fees protests of 2011, the police sanctioned the use of rubber bullets. The definition of ‘serious public disorder’ overlaps clumsily with the right to peaceful protest. To make matters worse, it is not even clear who would be responsible for authorising the use of water cannon, never mind the circumstances in which it they might be deployed.

Not only is the question misleading, the respondents themselves reported that they barely know anything about water cannon. The Mayor’s Office press release doesn’t bother to mention it, but you can read it for yourself in the consultation report. In response to this question:

Water cannons are police vehicles that spray jets of water. They can be used to create distance and to hold back crowds. How much would you say you know about water cannons?

This is the proportion of respondents who chose the following options:

  • ‘Know a lot’ = 13%
  • ‘Know a little’ = 52%
  • ‘Not a lot’ = 27%
  • ‘Nothing at all’ =  8%

In other words 87% of the 4,200 poll respondents admitted that they did not know much about water cannon. These hardly seem like the right people to be asking.

There’s more. I haven’t yet mentioned the petition against the use of water cannon submitted by change.org to the tune of 37,000 signatories (at the time of writing the petition has reached 44,268, add your name here). And in an unexpected slap on the back for democracy, London’s political representatives have actually represented the views of Londoners. 20 out of 25 London Assembly members – from all parties – voted against the purchase of water cannon last February. Even the Home Secretary hasn’t reached a decision yet about whether to sanction their use on the UK mainland.

It is becoming a tired cliché that whenever a politician instigates a controversial plan, you can find a quote from their recent past in which they promised not to do that thing. In a 2010 Mayor’s Question Time Johnson told the London Assembly:

“It is certainly my view that we are not instinctively in favour of ratcheting up the panoply of implements of crowd control in this city. This is a free city which has a great tradition of free speech. We do not want to see any kind of arms race with protestors. At the moment there are no plans to go, for instance, for water cannon.”

In a democracy you do not buy weapons to use against your own people.

We told them that, but they didn’t listen.

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