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Mark Steel

Mark Steel: Flogging is too good for them

People who love to scream about stern discipline and National Service are having a fantastic time in post-riot Britain. My favourite was a man on a Radio 5 phone-in, who ended his rant by yelling, "I TELL you how little discipline there is. My son gets homework and he's allowed to do it ON HIS COMPUTER. We need to GET BACK to PENCIL and PAPER!" And you felt that if you suggested 'What about pen and paper?' he'd shriek "NO! NOT PEN, YOU BLOODY LIBERAL. PENCIL! They have to SHARPEN pencils, it teaches them DISCIPLINE!"

I was hoping someone would ring in and say, "That bloke with his pencil is TOO SOFT. We need to get back to PAPYRUS, like they had in ancient Sumeria. Or PAINTING their homework on walls of CAVES. You didn't get STONE AGE MAN breaking into Foot Locker DID YOU?"

This was followed by someone explaining that his generation was brought up in the Seventies and were poor but didn't riot, which suggests he didn't keep all that close an eye on the news. And all week we've heard how, "We'd get a good hiding and it did us good," and, "If we were cheeky, the headmaster would march us to Reggie Kray who'd smear zebra fat over us and make us run through Bethnal Green chased by a pride of lions and it taught us RESPECT."

There's the call to evict families if one of their kids has been arrested, because once they're all homeless they'll be much less likely to steal things, won't they. On one phone-in a caller yelled, "These parents don't pay any attention to their own kids." So the presenter asked what age the caller's son was and he said, "Either seven or eight, I think."

And when they're in full flow about the need to whip and birch and drown, if someone says: "Well if I can just point out", that's as far as they get before being interrupted with, "How can you condone this looting and burning you sick, liberal bleeding-heart do-gooder with your, 'Well if I can just point out', how DARE you?"

Some newspapers have taken to connecting every story to the riots, such as the soldier killed in Afghanistan who was a "hero who shamed the riot yobs". Tomorrow a headline will say, "Riot yob Gaddafi fires on RAF jet", with a story that our pilots bombarded a retail park to stop him breaking into the Tripoli branch of Currys and making off with a plasma TV.

But little of this is actually in response to the disturbances. The callers, the Conservatives, the newspapers calling for crackdowns and good hidings have thought that all along.

What has changed is that the embittered snarling that was once confined to pub corners and fuming blogs now stands a chance of becoming government policy. Irrational screaming has become legitimate, and it's in this context we should see David Starkey.

The riots were caused, apparently, by black culture, and we can get round the fact some rioters were white by saying they'd turned black, and get round the fact most black people don't riot by saying they've turned white. You could use that logic to prove that being Welsh causes boats to capsize, or that everything alive is a penguin. Take away the title historian, and he's one more purveyor of loud incoherent gibberish.

Despite this, the call to bring back National Service might work, if it applied to all thieves and criminals and not just the looters. It would even be worth putting on live television, so we could see a sergeant barking, "You there, you weren't this slow to fiddle your expenses, you right horrible honourable member, now MARCH. And you, YOU'RE used to bonuses, well give me 60 press-ups then you get the bonus of shining my shoes. And YOU, instead of poncing about hacking phones I want five laps then you can write 10,000 words on why you're a useless little toerag. NOT on the computer, with a PENCIL and PAPER."