Calling in the army to help quell the looting and disorder in Britain would be a last resort, experts have said.
There would be political and practical difficulties, said Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, a city that experienced troops on the streets for decades.
He said Northern Ireland had a divided society where the state did not work. “The symbolism of having to do it in London’s streets tells you, sends a message, about the state of society there, too,” Bryan said.
The experience in Northern Ireland “almost makes it harder” to call in troops, he said. “Soldiers can do certain jobs but public order policing is quite a skilled and artful job to have to do. To use soldiers to do that job could be quite problematic.”
There had been more deaths from baton rounds fired by soldiers than by police officers in Northern Ireland, Bryan said. “The minute you ask soldiers to do policing jobs, you raise the risk of serious problems very significantly.”
Gwyn Prins, of the London School of Economics, said : “There is no ultimate military solution to any of these things. What you are doing is applying a bandage to a wound … It is only desirable to use troops on the street if you can’t possibly avoid it. You do consensual policing, that is what we do in Britain.”
Last year’s strategic defence and security review made cursory reference to “malicious acts” that could threaten serious damage to the welfare of citizens or the enviroment, but devoted more attention to terrorist attacks “using unconventional materials”, to tidal or coastal flooding and to a severe influenza pandemic.
Tobias Feakin, director of national security and resilience at the Royal United Services Institute said this showed a “disconnect between political powers and the people who are carrying out these actions”.
The military had been called upon to help civil authorities during floods in Gloucestershire and Cumbria, and to crew Green Goddess engines during fire service disputes, but to do so now would be a last resort, he said. During the floods, some police leaders had not welcomed any loss of operational control.
Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, said the army “by and large would be deeply reluctant” to be on London’s streets.
Furthermore, the army was already hard-pressed, he said. “You have a total of about 100,000 – it is a lot smaller than British police forces, for a start. It has very heavy commitment overseas – nearly 10,000 in Afghanistan – and you can normally say if you have one soldier based on operations overseas, you have to have four available – that is replacements, leave, training and all the rest.”
Although many troops stationed in Britain would have had training in riot or crowd control, Rogers said, experience on the streets was fading since the IRA ceasefire of 1997 and the Northern Ireland peace agreement the following year. “None of the young squaddies will have served in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Rogers said academics had been expecting problems as spending cuts began to bite, but they had arrived 18 months to two years earlier than predicted.
Home Office statistics suggest there are just over 139,000 police officers in England and Wales, three-fifths of the forces’ total staff. The Met accounts for about 32,500.