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

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea