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

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

 

i Editor's Letter: Still all to play for at our live iDebate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering