Britain has an idiosyncratic in fact unique policing system that is a triumph of western civilisation and the envy of the world. The light touch is its trademark, the unarmed bobby its symbol. Britains streets have for decades been orderly by western standards. It was the kind of order that ruled in the household paternal and protective, not sadistic and authoritarian. The past few days of urban riots have revealed the British policing system as untenable. It is too weak to confront the society that has grown up around it. Britons of all persuasions were disappointed in the police this week. Home secretary Theresa May told parliament the police response was not sufficiently robust. Tariq Jahan father of one of the men murdered by marauders in Birmingham while protecting his street said: If the police had handled the matter, if they could have stopped the escalation and the violence across Birmingham and other areas, this would not have happened. Light-touch policing was never as light as it looked. The bobby always had behind him as firepower the authority of societys prejudices. A consensus across classes that certain behaviours will not be tolerated is a powerful deterrent. But Britains police have had no such authority at their disposal for a long time now. British culture at least its urban culture has grown too diverse for common agreement on what is unacceptable public behaviour, short of violence. Even where such agreement exists, the authorities have been reluctant to enforce it. British culture has always been individualist, but in the last 50 years it has become radically anti-authoritarian. This disposition has to do with the project of dismantling the class system. Reformers have thrown out the baby of authority with the bath water of privilege. And this is a tragedy. Britain has chosen a different kind of liberty, one that does not rest on shared values. That is, it has chosen an American-style liberty, and this will have to be safeguarded in an American way. If violence is the only kind of behaviour police are permitted to counter, then they will be outfitted for countering violence, not for talking to children about keeping the sidewalks tidy. The alternative to maintaining order through consensus is through fear. While Britons are fond of their police, Americans are generally scared of theirs, and go to great lengths to avoid coming to their attention. In 2006, I joined two constables patrolling a rough street in the London neighbourhood of Spitalfields. It shocked me to see a gang of kids shouting insults out of an upper-storey flat. The officers told me that was nothing sometimes those kids threw things. In almost any neighbourhood in the US, the police would ensure that those kids would look back on having done that as the biggest mistake of their lives. Perhaps because Americans fear their police so much, they have great confidence in their efficacy. Any encounter with police is marked by an understanding that one party represents the legitimate authority of the state and one party does not. In recent years, British policemen have been groping for ways of instilling that in the public. Sometimes they have done so irresponsibly, as in the death of Ian Tomlinson, who wandered into the G20 protests in London in 2009 and died after being thrown to the ground by police. When fear-based policing triumphs, the need disappears for sensitivity to local conditions and legitimate gripes. A watershed moment in US policing came in 1968 when Chicago police brutalised hippies protesting outside the Democratic convention polls showed Americans backed the police overwhelmingly. For most Americans, the revelation that Mark Duggan had a real gun when he was killed by Tottenham police last week would have ended any discussion of justice and injustice. It will be clear to any US observer that this draconian vision of policing is in the process of triumphing in Britain. The only serious debate is over how much more leeway the police require. David Cameron has said he does not want to hear about phoney human rights concerns when using CCTV to arrest perpetrators. Whatever tactics police feel they need to employ, they will have legal backing to do so, he says. Public approval of vigilantism e.g. the bat-wielding Turks of Dalston is another sign of this shift. The new consensus is that erring on the side of caution is as dangerous as erring on the side of brutality. Once that is agreed, the police become a different type of organisation. The bobby will not totally disappear. The old style of policing will be maintained for tourists, much as you can still see mounted police on Boston Common. But the real work of the police will henceforth be done through kettling, electronic surveillance and weaponry. Financial Times