In the ongoing debate about the UK riots it is important to explore further its causes as well as possible remedies. A great mystery for many is why by no means all of the rioters were from deprived, ill-educated backgrounds. What we have to recognise is that below the veneer of civilised life there lurks an anarchic streak which needs only a few factors to coalesce to release mayhem. (St. Petersburg was the most civilised of cities until its people started to eat one another under the pressures of the German seige.)
One of the factors, I suggest, which let the anarchic genie out of the bottle was the images of the early rioters getting away with stealing much sought after goods with impunity, with the police seeming to be impassive bystanders. The many rioters not normally associated with the lawless underclass saw their acquisitive instincts rise to the fore; they felt powerfully envious and jealous that others were acquiring the things which they themselves valued highly and were doing so unimpeded and without risk, so it seemed, of consequences. Ours, as we are all very well aware, is an extremely acquisitive and materialistic society and the temptation was very great. And so adding to all the other tragedies of the last few days is that of bright young people throwing their futures away. For obvious reasons, and to maintain that veneer of civilised conduct, we must come down hard on rioting. There was a time when rampaging, destructive rioters were shot on sight. As for arson, the law has always bracketed it very close with murder because in so many cases it ended up with just that. Of course those days have gone, although the arson view remains.
Many have drawn a parallel with the blatant and offensive greed we see at the top of society. They are not unconnected, though they are not the same: these people have said that a climate right across society of the devil take the hindmost and every man for himself has had a corrosive effect and they are right; they have further pointed out that the sums involved in what might be called Grand Larceny by the upper classes make their hapless imitators in the lower orders look like pathetic amateurs; perhaps more disgracefully, the big practitioners have used their superior wits and education to mask the wickedness of what they are doing. For the fact is they do know what they have been doing and are still doing. But they have been rumbled (highlighting the need for a free and untramelled press). There is, as a result, a very great anger out there among the public.
Not one of the agencies which shape our lives sets an example of probity, save perhaps the military: not the town halls with their obscene rewards for second rate executives; not the parliamentarians who frame our laws; not the police who receive payment for information; not the press with its eagerness to get an expose; not our financial institutions; nor even the House of Lords who are meant to be above it all, packed full as it meant to be with people we are asked to admire as a result of their lives of supposed selfless service in whatever field they have specialised in. But what of the professions? Have they performed better? Don’t believe it! We have doctors conning a witless government into paying them 30% more for less cover and work. We have ambulance chasing lawyers rubbing their hands with glee as they pursue what should be hopeless Human Rights cases at huge expense to the taxpayer (step forward Cherie Blair). And we have accountants stretching the law to breaking point as they seek ever more ingenious dodges and tax havens for their rich clients. Why do people in corporations such as Sir Philip Green along with the likes of philanderers and ex-drug users such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney as well as clean (as far as we know) Cliff Richard and actors such as Sean Connery and Roger Moore, all of whom along with Rod Stewart short-change their country’s treasury get honoured? They are not patriots, they are cheating scoundrels. Sanctimonious Bono’s U2 cheats even poor benighted Ireland of its desperately needed dues. All of these people and bodies have been found wanting and intent only on feathering their own nasty little nests at the public expense.
Corruption, fraud, dissembling all are alive and well in the British state. Oh, for that magnificent body that we once created in distant India – the ICS (Indian Civil Service) – which in over a hundred years of dedicated and selfless service never found one of its servants corrupt. They were chosen after perhaps the stiffest examination ever known to man (the Mandarin exam being a possible exception) and they were expected to be fluent in the language of the area they were seconded to. Setting example, leading from the front, taking the rap that is what all of us look to in our leaders. When did the last politician (David Davis excepted) resign his post on a point of principal or even when a monumental cock-up has been made in their department? Yet funnily enough, Enoch Powell was one of those to do so. Indeed, the last one that I can think of was Lord Carrington over the Falklands and that was nearly thirty years ago. Even lying to Parliament seems not a resigning matter any more. And we have a Speaker who appears little better than a clown (the previous one was no better, being both ignorant and corrupt). What a distance we have fallen. Where oh where, by the way, was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the terrible events of last week? A few words concerning Christian values would surely have not gone amiss.
Not until we show that we will not tolerate reprehensible conduct can we, with justice, expect what used to be called ‘the lower orders’ to respect the law. But meantime we must hold the line on the streets. Let the work begin. Perhaps we can now see a little of that ‘Big Society’ that David Cameron is so keen on. They were there with their clean up operation the morning after the riot.