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Britain’s Embarrassing Collective Response to the London Riots

With the passing consolations of a royal wedding and a triumph at cricket, England endures a turbulent summer, as riots sweep through the cities, newspapers fulminate, and politicians pontificate. Yes, 1981 seems almost like yesterday—which makes it eerier that history should repeat itself just 30 years on.

And repeat is the word. Four nights which saw a wave of looting and pillaging have been followed by two weeks in which the country has been swept by another wave, of blather and bluster driven by hot air. This tsunami of pontification has been as predictable as it was pointless. Ten years ago, TNR ran “Idiot Watch,” cataloguing the mindless preening inanities that followed 9/11, and another sottisier could have been compiled in England this month. Having endured this daily barrage since the first buildings were torched, I’d say that the most charitable verdict is William Goldman’s famous apothegm about Hollywood: Nobody knows anything. 

That includes prime ministers past and present. “Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband made excellent speeches last week,” or so we were told on Sunday by our penultimate premier. Nowadays, Tony Blair rarely voices his views in London newspapers, in this case the Observer, or indeed appears in this country at all. But he too felt the need to chime in about the rioters, even if he proved to add little to the debate.

“The left says they’re victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions,” Blair correctly said; “both just miss the point.” That may be true, but then Blair misses it as well.  

For the left, and for liberal papers like Guardian, the culprit was the Tory-led government and its “cuts,” the program of rigorous reduction in public spending in response to unprecedented public debt. But it’s hard to see what effect these cuts can really have made in the little more than 15 months since the coalition government took office under David Cameron.                   

A more telling (if not quite logical) response is the good old tu quoque: look who’s talking. How can the poor be condemned for looting household goods while bankers and financiers have been looting from the public on a far vaster scale than any teenage gangsta could dream of? This is a variant of Brecht’s “What is the crime of robbing a bank compared with the crime of owning one?” and it must be admitted that in the age of AIG, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and Madoff, most of us have our Brechtian moments. And all of us here bridle when anyone is upbraided for greed and dishonesty by our Members of Parliament, who turn out to have been pilfering the taxpayer for years with their fraudulent expenses.

But there were no qualms or hesitations in the right-wing press, least of all the thunderous voice of the Daily Mail. Its commentators spoke, or shouted, with deafening unanimity. Melanie Phillips: “Britain’s liberal intelligentsia has smashed virtually every social value;” Max Hastings: “Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters;” James Slack: “Rudderless Met [the London police] crippled by liberalism;” Stephen Glover: “Draconian sentences, weak-kneed liberals and why thugs need to fear the law.”

Yes, I think we get the message, that there might possibly be something wrong with “liberalism.” But that was only the Mail’s warm-up act. A.N. Wilson saw the riots as the “Legacy of a society that believes in nothing” (“in our secular age—an age in which, tragically, the Church of England appears to do little more than wring its hands as congregation numbers plummet—this moral bedrock is being steadily eroded”).

And under the headline, “The politics of envy was bound to end up in flames,” Richard Littlejohn truly didn’t mince words. Why weren’t the police “clubbing these looters like baby seals, which is what they deserved”? Likewise, Hastings thought the rioters “essentially wild beasts … . They respond only to instinctive animal impulses—to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.” Unfortunately, and in contrast with real wild beasts, said Hastings, “no one even shot them for it.” 

Which brings us to the politicians. Americans can be forgiven if they have never heard of Roger Helmer, since few Englishmen have either. He’s a Tory Member of the European Parliament at Strasbourg, although also a passionate Europhobe who wants the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and it’s true enough that the corrupt, self-important and redundant “parliament” to which he belongs is the worst possible advertisement for the EU. His tweeted response to events at home was straight from the shoulder: “Time to get tough. Bring in the army. Shoot the rioters.”

That was a little too strong for the leader of Helmer’s party, but Cameron has gone to some lengths to acquit himself of any charge of soppy liberalism. He flew back from holiday in Tuscany to say that the riots were “criminality, pure and simple.” (That last is one of his favorite phrases, used over and again; he forgets the exchange in The Importance of Being Earnest when Jack says, “That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple,” and Algernon replies, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”) 

Further blame was laid by Cameron on the “twisted” Human Rights Act, one favorite target of the Tories, as well as another, “the health and safety culture.” Cameron listed the “children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control.”

All of which presented Ed Miliband with a problem. As leader of a Labor party which at least ostensibly stands on the left, he doesn’t want to sneer at the poor, but nor does he want to be identified with lawless violence. He resorted to calling for an inquiry, and said that to dismiss the riots off as no more than crime “would not get to the root of the problem.”

Banal as that might sound, at least Miliband was brave enough not to join Cameron’s disgraceful demand for tougher sentences for the rioters. This is unconstitutional, pure and simple, as the prime minister might say: Parliament passes laws, the courts interpret them and impose punishment free from the executive branch of government.

Alas, some courts needed no encouragement to pass monstrous and downright ridiculous sentences. Two young fools who hadn’t taken part in the riots, but had used Facebook to egg them on, were imprisoned for four years, and a young mother who had also stayed indoors but accepted a piece of looted clothing was given five months (almost immediately overturned on appeal).

So nobody knows anything, and that includes the Prince of Wales—who inimitably chipped in to say, “I do think half of the problem is that people join gangs as a cry for help”—as well as Blair. He almost made a good argument when he said that Cameron should not bloviate about “moral decline.” And he claimed that today’s younger generation was “a) more respectable b) more responsible and c) more hardworking than mine was.”

Even if that were so, there’s a problem for Blair and his Labor successors. Tens of thousands of violently destructive rioters and looters were an all-too visible fact. Another fact is demographic. By far the largest age-group of rioters, over 70 percent, were between 18 and 24. An English 18-year-old today spent his formative years, from four to 14, under the prime ministership of one Tony Blair.

Or to put it another way, they are all right, and they are all wrong. Yes, of course, there was a horrible and frightening breakdown of law and order. Yes, the rioters are lawless louts with no moral sense. Yes, many of them have grown up in dysfunctional families or none, and with few material advantages (although 54 years after Sondheim’s lyric-writing debut in West Side Story, “I’m depraved ’cause I’m deprived” is beginning to wear a little thin). And yes, there are usually “root causes” of anything, from communism to fascism to suicide bombings, though that doesn’t get us much further.

Having endured all this long enough, it occurred to me that there might actually be some words of value that could illuminate these events and go beyond sterile name-calling. Try this: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” But that was said by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a long way away, and a long time before 2011, or even 1981.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!