The end of civilisation as we British know it

Has the behaviour of the rioters destroyed our traditionalculture of consensual constraint? Michael McCarthy reports
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Twitter is a remarkable medium through which to follow a major event, especially now it has been embraced by thousands of people. It makes possible a panoramic view of events and an equally wide view of people's reactions at the same time. I spent until the early hours of yesterday morning observing the rioting in London via thousands of tweets, from the safety of my desk, while my younger colleagues were out risking their necks to report it.

The advantage of being an armchair observer via Twitter is that you not only get news of events long before the news agencies have broadcast them, you get a very real sense of the public mood and its shifts. And late on Monday evening, as the violence spread across London, the mood of the citizenry noticeably changed, shifting from anger and outrage to fear.

What began to terrify people, especially in areas where the police were absent, was the seemingly limitless nature of what the rioters would do. The looting, in particular, went past all previous bounds; the rioters would loot everything, everywhere; they would attack and rob anyone they came across; they began to break into private houses.

I think people were so frightened because what was on display was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture.

The role of culture in makingBritish society what it is, and in giving it its strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.

This is in sharp contrast to a society like that of the United States, for example, which is largely a rule-bound society. To give just a single instance: drinking alcohol in the street used to be rare in Britain, because it was frowned upon – but in the US there are local laws specifically forbidding it. The rule-bound society arose in America because the founding fathers created a written constitution. Britain, whose governing process evolved slowly and organically, does not have a written constitution, merely a set of understandings about how things ought to be done.

These understandings have, in the past, been widespread and very powerful. The bus queue and the idea of queuing generally is an example that persists; I remember my spluttering resentment when I first went skiing, years ago, and stood patiently with the other Brits in the queue for the chairlift and watched as the little French and Italian kids skied to the front and forced their way in. (When I was a boy, no woman on a bus or a train would be standing if a man had a seat to offer her; now the man who gets up is the exception.)

I once sat down to try to work out what was the single most valuable thing about British society and I concluded that it was our relatively incorrupt Civil Service. In the past, if you wanted a new driving licence, say, you filled in the application form and posted it to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (now you do it online), and back your licence came. You did not include a £20 note in the envelope; you did not ring up the guy in the department who was your wife's second cousin and ask him to speed it up. Yet in many parts of the world, that is how things are routinely done. The reason people in Britain behaved differently was the culture, the culture of shame, if you like; it would be shameful to do otherwise.

As the Fifties became the Sixties, society became liberated and far less docile: Mods and Rockers fought on the beach at Brighton; students demonstrated against the Vietnam war. But somehow, although it provoked indignation from retired colonels, none of this really stepped outside the bounds.

I can remember when I first saw the cultural norms transgressed; it was on a Sunday evening in August 1976, at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival, which I had been covering as a young reporter for the Daily Mirror. The event ended in rioting. I had covered riots before, in Northern Ireland,but that evening I saw something new.

It wasn't just people throwing rocks at the police. There were groups of young men on the street, openly brandishing knives and openly looking to rob. It was chilling. It took me some time to work out why it was different, but eventually I realised that it was the openness of their behaviour which was so startling. To anyone of my generation, it was unthinkable that you would behave so shamelessly, that you might strut about in the street with a knife. And it was clear that those people rioting had been socialised in a different way, so that the informal constraints on behaviour had no effect on them.

So with the looting on Monday night. This was a multiracial phenomenon. There were plenty of black rioters and plenty of white rioters, too. But what united them was the abandonment of all restraint. To them, the cultural norms which had once been so powerful in British society were irrelevant, with perhaps the most egregious example of all being the young man who was robbed while he was injured.

What has held British society together, given it its relative stability and unique values, has been culture. It is clear there is a growing section of young men and women to whom this culture means nothing, and this will have to be recognised. It does not mean we cannot have civil governance, but increasingly it will have to be based on rules rather than on universally accepted norms. Those norms were the best thing about British society, and long after the burnt-out streets of Hackney and Croydon and Ealing have been rebuilt, their loss will be resonating with us still.

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