Leading article: Liberalism has improved Britain – its defenders must speak up

When David Cameron spoke of "pockets of our society that are not only broken, but frankly sick", in his first response to the recent rioting, he was saying no more than would have been expected from a Conservative prime minister in such circumstances.

Less predictable, perhaps, was the near-unanimity on parade in Parliament on Thursday, where MPs from all parties vied to identify a malaise that stemmed, as they saw it, from a destructive moral laxity pervading Britain. From parenting to education to policing, a cross-party consensus called for discipline, toughness and the re-establishment and enforcement of boundaries.

It could be argued that, in their clarion calls, the politicians were doing no more than reflecting the public mood. An e-petition demanding the withdrawal of state benefits and council homes from those involved in the disturbances has soared to the top of the 10 Downing Street website. A poll we publish today has 78 per cent of those asked supporting automatic prison sentences for anyone convicted of rioting and 54 per cent agreeing that Mr Cameron failed to provide the necessary leadership.

Given the sight of trashed high streets and the television pictures of recent days, this reaction might not be altogether surprising. But the long-term cost could be considerably higher even than that of the rioting. The very real risk now is that three nights of sporadic and localised violence could force three decades or more of liberalism into reverse.

True, some aspects of social policy may have had unintended, even malign, consequences. Allocation of social housing according to need alone has created greater concentrations of disadvantage. A focus on child poverty may not only have helped single parents, but also made child-bearing a logical life choice for some ill-equipped to become parents. But the alternatives must be considered, too.

The differences between the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 30 years ago and the violence that began in Tottenham a week ago are starker by far than the similarities. Then, racism on the part of the police was a prime catalyst. Thirty years on, racism has not been completely expunged, but it is not what triggered the latest disturbances. If the looters who have reached court so far evinced any disadvantage, it was social and economic. After 1981, much policing was rethought, with community relations front and centre. It is an achievement that the clamour from many of these same communities now is for more policing, not less.

And while multiculturalism as an approach designed to foster social harmony is in the dock across Europe, the sensitivity to cultural difference and protection for civic rights that it presupposes have served Britain well. If anyone needs evidence, it can be found not only in the look and feel of our shops and streets, but also in the way communities have come together to condemn the rioters, clean up and collect money for the victims.

As for social attitudes, we have to ask what a fast track back to 1980, or even the 1950s, would produce. Do we want pupils to be in cowering fear of teachers armed with belts and canes? Do we want two-thirds of schoolchildren to be written off as failures at 11? Pregnant teenagers forced to have abortions or banished? Do we want sexual difference stigmatised again? Or families who cannot afford their rent to be split up? Those made redundant to face destitution?

There are compelling reasons why many facets of liberalism were embraced and, thanks to liberalism, Britain in 2011 is a far better place for the majority of its citizens than the Britain of 1981. This is the conclusive riposte to those now seeking to set back the clock.