Criticism of the Notting Hill Carnival, with a focus on crime and disorder at the annual gathering in west London, is nothing new. But this year it has been particularly sharp. There were 308 arrests. A youth was photographed brandishing a machete. Eight stabbings took place – that was the highest since 2016 when 15 were recorded.
The Metropolitan Police Federation, a sort of police trade union, tweeted:
“Once again Notting Hill carnival marred by serious violence – and attacks on police officers. 75 of our colleagues assaulted. Six bitten. One sexually assaulted. One in hospital. This is absolutely disgusting. No wonder our members dread policing this event.”
Susan Hall, the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London in next year’s election, proposes that it should be moved. “Of course police officers dread it, there is always violence and they put themselves in danger at every Notting Hill Carnival,” she has said in the past.
An official Metropolitan Police announcement said:
“Thousands of officers have worked to keep the public safe at Notting Hill Carnival over the past two days. While most people had an enjoyable experience, Monday evening was sadly marred by eight stabbings.”
Matt Ridley mocked this by responding:
“While the archduke had an enjoyable visit to Sarajevo in the morning, the afternoon was sadly marred by his assassination.”
Naturally, any incident of violence prompts dismay. Emotion triumphs over reason. Any plea for a sense of proportion can be caricatured as callous.
Yet we are talking about an event with a huge attendance – as high as two million people according to some estimates. I’m afraid that under the current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, stabbings in the capital are widespread. The number of knife or sharp instrument offences recorded by the police in London rose to 12,786 last year. That’s 35 a day. There will tend to be more in the summer and at weekends. Frankly, for there to have been only eight stabbings at this year’s Carnival is remarkably low.
Usually, one looks to Ridley, the “rational optimist”, for calm logic of this kind. Many are sceptical of the lockdown over a lack of evidence that it really saved lives – given all the non-covid excess deaths still being experienced. But others question whether, even if there was a net saving of lives, it was worth it, given all the social and economic harm – the loss of liberty, the damage to educational opportunity, the impact on mental health, and so on. One relies on such heroes as Ridley for rigour – also, for instance, giving reasoned considerations to the costs and benefits of Net Zero, rather than succumbing to hysteria about the “climate emergency.”
Is the contention that the Carnival should only continue if complete safety can be assured? Would one apply that principle to travelling abroad? Climbing mountains? Sailing? What a dreary world it would be if we surrendered to the health and safety puritans.
“Ah,” some of the critics reply. “It’s not that we want to cancel the Notting Hill Carnival. Merely to move it. Perhaps to Hyde Park.” But then it wouldn’t be the Notting Hill Carnival, would it? It being in Notting Hill is an essential part of the lark. Would these people want to move the Chelsea Flower Show out of Chelsea? Or decide the Royal Albert Hall was no longer quite right for the Last Night of the Proms? This soulless disregard for tradition is curious coming from Conservatives.
I can understand another argument that the locals don’t like the racket. Trying to get an early night’s sleep in the streets off Ladbroke Grove must have been challenging over the Bank Holiday weekend. But the Carnival has been going since the 1970s. Anybody who moved in since then must have known what they were letting themselves in for. It should be accepted as part of the local pattern. Just as if someone goes to live in the countryside it is unreasonable to complain about a cock crowing or the local hunt.
On a bus journey down Shepherd’s Bush Road on Monday evening, I encountered a cheerful but polite crowd of black teenage girls on their way back from the Carnival. Stunning outfits and make up – great trouble having been taken with their appearance. All were busy sending each other photographs, of course, and reflecting on the day’s festivities. The equivalent of the “coming out” parties for the debutantes a century ago.
Why should they be denied this celebration? It has the great advantage of being free. How many of them could afford to go to Glastonbury? Or even Glyndebourne.
I’m not suggesting that safety could not be improved. One mistake the police make is to be too keen to “join in the fun” and thus erode their authority. They are there to work, to uphold the law. Yes, the extraordinary scale of the event is a challenge. But that is a problem of success.
Conservatives must avoid being a bunch of sour prigs. They should celebrate freedom and the bewildering array of opportunities life has to offer. Boris Johnson managed to embody that spirit which was key to his popularity. We should not restrict life to regimented, egalitarian conformity. That is the drab approach best suited to the socialist killjoys. Conservatives should not go down that path.