Leading article: A shock to the system

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary