It was impossible not to feel horror, outrage and even fear at the images from England’s streets last week. However, the harbingers have been there for some time if anybody had cared to look. England’s social and cultural ties that bind have been weakening and corroding for decades.
As a nation we are a lost tribe — disoriented, brooding and suspicious. There is no sense of collective purpose or shared destiny. It is a directionlessness intermingled with a destructive new conviction that a cornerstone of Englishness — a commitment to fairness — is being torched. Those at the top are in the forefront of the charge to grab what they can without any sense of their proportional and due dessert, or accompanying responsibility to the society of which they are part.
Of course there is no excuse for wanton criminality — as the prime minister, the archbishop of Canterbury and the leader of the opposition all said in a dutiful chorus and which was echoed afterwards by many of the repentant looters themselves in the magistrates’ courts. However, that does not help us much. We need to know why, and we need to get beyond invocations to better policing, tougher penalties and better parenting, however much they may be needed as part of the solution. The emergent consensus is that there was not even a higher political or social purpose behind what happened: It was mindless, feral youths and gangs — their members unparented — looting for the flat-screen TVs and trainers to which they wrongly felt entitled. It was an abysmal new social low.
Yet from the tweets and BlackBerry messages it is clear that something more subtle and even more worrying was happening — and that there is a thread linking last week’s destruction to other events that have recently hit our streets. It was only in April that there were arrests in Bristol as young squatters occupied a local store that Tesco wanted to turn into a Tesco Express — eight police officers were injured in the violent disturbances. And recall the shock at students running amok in their protests about tuition fees last autumn.
Then it seemed there was a thin carapace of legitimacy about the violence: Opposition was explicable and violence at the margins of protest, while never to be condoned, can take place.
But there were also Clockwork Orange dimensions (Alex and his “droogs”) alongside Lord of the Flies aspects (Jack Merridew’s murderous boy tribe) to all these events. Our kids were summoned by tweet and BlackBerry messages to have some evil fun (as some of the articulate looters have even described it), to break free from the dreariness of their lives and for a moment to rule the roost, cocking a snook at the “Feds” (the police).
Anthony Burgess’ and William Golding’s warnings about the thinness of our social norms have proved ominously prescient. Now we discover that the wells of disaffection and readiness to make mayhem run much deeper than the unwanted side-effects of political protest.
This should not be a surprise. Of course Laura Johnson, from a ￡1 million (US$1.63 million) house in Orpington, or Alexis Bailey, a classroom assistant in a primary school, were apparently caught up with the disadvantaged looters. Just as baby-boomers, rich and poor alike, were part of a larger common life experience so are today’s under 30s.