No shame, no limits: Has the behaviour of the mob destroyed the idea of British civility for ever?
On Monday night rioters across the capital showed that authority held no sway over them. The Independent’s commentators discuss the riots that have shaken a nation.
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Wednesday 10 August 2011
Twitter is a remarkable medium through which to follow a major event like violent disorder, especially when the micro-blogging service 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 comfort and safety of my desk, while my younger colleagues were out risking their necks to report it.
But 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. It had gone far beyond a barney with the coppers and the looting, in particular, it 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 something had been loosed and was on display, which 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 making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable 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, which is the reason for the vast proliferation of lawyers in the US, arose in America because the founding fathers created a new nation from scratch, starting with a written Constitution that set out the first principles and then writing down and proscribing everything else about people's behaviour.
Britain, whose governing process evolved slowly and organically, does not even have a written constitution, merely a set of understandings about how things ought to be done.
But 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 shock and 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. (An example that has fallen by the wayside is giving up your seat to a woman on public transport. 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.)
These may seem like relatively trivial instances, but cultural norms exercise much deeper and more important influences. 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 in Swansea (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. We can probably locate the origins of this in two factors: mid-Victorian religious morality and the nature of the British national psyche. Victorian morality spanned society, with Methodism and the other free churches strongly influencing the working class and the upper classes in their Anglican public schools being animated by Dr Thomas Arnold's ideal of the education of a Christian gentleman. The two streams came together in a general national understanding, across the classes, that behaviour should be civilised. It is one of the reasons why revolutionary Marxism never took root here and the Labour Party embraced parliamentary democracy instead.
The British psyche was the fertile soil in which this understanding flowered: we are not an aggressive or violent people. The idea of the British bulldog is a myth and never more clearly shown than by the tribulations of the citizen army that landed in France on D-Day in 1944. Max Hastings' gripping account of the subsequent Normandy campaign, Overlord, makes very uncomfortable reading, for it demonstrates in detail how the British Army was outfought by the Germans until overwhelming firepower eventually beat the Nazi war machine down. When the odds were equal, Hastings said, the Germans always prevailed. This is not to minimise by one jot the courage and self-sacrifice of the British forces, it is simply that we were not naturally good at fighting. We were brave and stoical but not imaginatively aggressive, which is a different thing – and what the Germans were.
This combination of a peaceful national character and an accepted moral outlook on how we ought to behave produced (especially after the Second World War, when people had got used to being told what to do) a society of social cohesion and stability: the low point for crime in British history was 1953. This is the society into which, as a baby boomer, I was born. And it was one of the many dazzling advantages we enjoyed, along with plenty to eat, free health, free education, freedom of speech and ever-rising expectations.
As the Fifties became the Sixties, society became liberated and far less docile and there were rumbles, there was industrial unrest: 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 of the culture.
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 which had been such a key part of our culture had no effect on them whatsoever.
So with the looting on Monday night. This was a multi-racial phenomenon. There were plenty of black rioters and plenty of white rioters, too. But what united them was the abandonment of all restraint and that the cultural norms which had once been so powerful in British society were irrelevant to them, with perhaps the most egregious example of all being the young man who was robbed even while he was injured. People were still stunned yesterday by what had they had witnessed; here's a tweet from anIndependent contributor, picked from many similar ones: "Am still thinking about what I saw last night. It was like watching packs of wild dogs bring down antelopes."
We have plenty of rules and plenty of laws like every other nation, but what has held British society together, given its relative stability and unique values, has been culture. It is clear that there is a growing section of young men and women who have been so socialised that this culture means nothing to them and this will have to be recognised. This is probably not something that policy can deal with; it cannot be ameliorated, it can only be confronted.
It does not mean that we cannot have civil governance, but it will increasingly have to be based on rules which are enforced, rather than on universally accepted norms of behaviour. 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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