FEAR. Debilitating, widespread fear. The country held to ransom by feckless youths. Thousands of shocked Londoners cowering in their homes, with many shops, banks and offices shutting early. I cannot remember anything like it; the atrocities of the 7/7 terror attacks, the shock from 9/11 and the IRA’s repeated terrorist attacks had a chilling, devastating effect on the capital but it felt different this time. Usually peaceful suburbs were under siege; meanwhile, there was increasing violence in other towns. The government belatedly appeared to regain control in London but the electorate’s trust that the cavalry would show up if they call 999 has been shattered. It no longer feels as if we live in a civilised country.
The cause of the riots is the looters; opportunistic, greedy, arrogant and amoral young criminals who believe that they have the right to steal, burn and destroy other people’s property. There were no extenuating circumstances, no excuses. The context was two-fold: first, decades of failed social, educational, family and microeconomic policies, which means that a large chunk of the UK has become alienated from mainstream society, culturally impoverished, bereft of role models, permanently workless and trapped and dependent on welfare or the shadow economy. For this the establishment and the dominant politically correct ideology are to blame: they deemed it acceptable to permanently chuck welfare money at sink estates, claiming victory over material poverty, regardless of the wider consequences, in return for acquiring a clean conscience. The second was a failure of policing and criminal justice, exacerbated by an ultra-soft reaction to riots over the past year involving attacks on banks, shops, the Tory party HQ and so on, as well as an official policy to shut prisons and reduce sentences. Criminals need to fear the possibility and consequence of arrest; if they do not, they suddenly realise that the emperor has no clothes. At some point, something was bound to happen to trigger both these forces and for consumerist thugs to let themselves loose on innocent bystanders.
But while all three main parties are responsible for flawed policies that have fuelled this growing underclass at a time of national prosperity – 5.5m-6m adults now on out of work benefits, a number that has been roughly constant for over two decades – the argument made by some that the riots were “caused” or “provoked” by cuts, university fees or unemployment is wrong-headed. Just because someone is in personal trouble doesn’t give them the right to rob, attacks or riot.
In any case, the state will spend 50.1 per cent of GDP this year; state spending has still been rising by 2 per cent year on year in cash terms. It has never been as high as it is today – in fact, it is squeezing out private sector growth and hence reducing opportunities and jobs. Many of the vandals were school children not yet in the labour market; unemployment is a tragedy that must be fought but 9, 10 or 14 year olds can’t be pillaging because of it. Equally tragically, most of the older rioters would never have any hope of going to university, regardless of cost, such is their educational poverty.
What they wanted is free money and free goods and so they helped themselves. They were driven by greed, a culture of entitlement, of rights without responsibility, combined with a complete detachment from traditional morality, generalised teenage anger and a sense that anything goes in the current climate. This wasn’t a political protest, it was thievery. It is true, however, that proper welfare, educational and economic reforms may cost money short term; and of course the coalition’s desire to protect so many departments, its failure to root out waste, its refusal to broaden the sources of financing of public services, its desire to increase foreign aid and its acquiescence to handing more cash to the EU has forced it at times to propose the wrong kind of cuts. Obviously spending on law enforcement and prisons needs to be increased. Figures of authority – teachers, parents and the police – must again be given the power to act. We need to see New York style zero tolerance policing, with all offences, however minor, prosecuted. But what matters right now is to regain control, to stamp out the violence and to arrest, prosecute and jail as many thugs as possible. The law-abiding mainstream majority feels that it has been abandoned and betrayed by the establishment and is very, very angry. Boris Johnson and David Cameron must urgently deliver or their careers will be over – and deservedly so.
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