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Leading article: A shock to the system

That violent disorder should break out on the streets of British cities was a profound shock. Seeing the footage of burning buildings and vehicles, it is surprising that more people were not killed. It was bad enough to see so many people lose their homes, or the businesses for which they had worked hard. For most of us, it was deeply unnerving to realise how fragile is the veneer of civilised urban life. It rarely occurs to us to think that, if people think that they can get away with smashing windows, arson and stealing, enough of them will do it that the police will be overwhelmed.

Yet, although the early police response was slow, they had regained control of the streets of London by Tuesday and of other cities a day later. David Cameron's return from holiday in the early hours of Tuesday may have served a symbolic purpose in helping to restore confidence, but the police had already restored order.

Suddenly, it seems as if we are talking about something long ago when we ask, "What was that all about?" Already, we can see that this disorder was unlike previous riots, such as in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985 and the poll tax riot in 1990. All those had identifiable causes and arose from recognisable grievances. This time, the shooting dead of Mark Duggan by police provided a pretext, but the causes of the looting seemed to be a combination of warm weather, teenage boredom, 24-hour news, mobile phones and the excitement of violence.

There is, of course, an underlying social problem too. We should be wary of hell-in-handcartism, which suggests that social ills, whether they be inequality, irresponsibility or materialism, are so much worse than in a golden-age past. In most ways, this country is better today than it has ever been. But the disorder of recent days was undoubtedly a symptom of a long-standing malaise.

Whether we talk about an "underclass", or social exclusion, or simply poverty, it should be clear that the problem may have been ameliorated, but it was not solved by 13 years of Labour government. There is, if we speak candidly, an informal contract between the comfortable and the poor, that the poor shall be housed and given money to stay out of the way. If they behave badly or violently they are expected to keep it among themselves. One of the causes of liberal guilt might be that, in recent days, that pact broke down and the hint of menace and lawlessness around the edges of society broke into the public centre.

With any shock to the system, there is an element of rough justice in the response. As a liberal newspaper, we worry about excessive sentences for non-violent offences. Nor do we support some of the more punitive measures that have been suggested, and we are confident that the courts will, rightly, prevent councils from evicting the families of those charged with theft.

Having said that, authority needed to be reasserted, and public confidence in the police – and the confidence of the police in themselves – needed to be restored. What is more important is that it seems likely that the murderers of Tariq Jahan's son and his friends will be brought to justice. We hope that the police will focus on the serious offenders rather than the slow or stupid easy pickings.

Most important for the future is the task of re-uniting the nation around the principle of responsibility. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, expressed it well last week, when he called for "an end to a take-what-you-can culture that needs to change from the benefits office to the boardroom".

Of course, bankers, MPs and journalists are not guilty of violence and arson, but the scandals of greed in the City, of parliamentary expenses and of phone hacking certainly make it harder for comfortable Britain to lecture the poor about responsibility. Against this test, Mr Cameron was found wanting last week, in that his response to the riots seemed to consist mainly of illiberal public-relations gestures.

The true moral leadership last week came from Mr Jahan, in his plea against revenge for the death of his son, from the peace wall in Peckham, from the clean-up campaigns, and from all the people in deprived areas who have rallied to reclaim their neighbourhoods from the anti-social minority.

Britain is a great country, in which the good far outweighs the bad. Let us celebrate our strengths as we try to fix our weaknesses.