An Iron Fist in a Lavender City

English cities are still reeling from last week’s looting spree and politicians compete to express shock at the wild disregard for private property.

But England is a country where the idea of the “perfect crime” makes hearts beat faster. This is the land of Robin Hood and even its coziest films depict scurrilous heists.

The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers and The Italian Job are as English as cucumber sandwiches and warm beer. The characters of the “gentleman thief” and the dashing highwayman who charm their victims and disappear into the night with a handkerchief full of diamonds are more romanticised than any crime-fighter.

If a winsome rascal with a David Niven moustache managed to smuggle the crown jewels out of the Tower of London in a hot air balloon and went on to enjoy happy sun-filled afternoons in Latin America he would be celebrated as a fine example of a chap who got away with it.

The vile thuggery of the rioters was the antithesis of this tradition. It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which a villain played by Alec Guinness would don a hoodie and take a sledgehammer to the window of a footwear shop.

The looters were dismally unimaginative in their choice of swag and the ugliness and stupidity of the rampage would have Professor Moriarty holding his head in his hands. No criminal mastermind would plot his escapade on Facebook or post pictures of his contraband on Twitter.

But if the moronic nature of the rioters is a cause of concern, the force with which the criminal justice system has come down on some of the most hapless characters has also raised eyebrows.

It may be a despicable thing to call for a riot, but giving four-year sentences to lunatics who failed to persuade anyone to turn up to their rumpus – and who were daft enough to make their clarion call for anarchy on the internet – is quite draconian. The taxpayer will spend many thousands jailing these nefarious goons but would society be better off if they had been banned from the internet and sentenced to several hundred hours of graffiti-cleaning?

This would at least have got them outdoors, away from the glowing computer screens where their moral compasses were clearly scrambled.

It would be a great shame if the rush to impose headline-spawning sentences obscured the vexing questions of why (a) why collective madness seized so many people and (b) why thugs were allowed in full view of the police and media helicopters were allowed to start fires, ransack shops and run amok in a capital city.

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