Like most people, I have been shocked by the events of recent days in London and other cities. Shocked, and profoundly disturbed.
To look at the matter first from a selfish point of view, it has suddenly become apparent that one is not safe in one's home. There simply are not enough police for them to cover everywhere at once. The trouble has largely stopped in the last few nights, but that is only with extra police drafted in from elsewhere, all leave and rest days cancelled, 12-hour shifts, and police moved to this task from almost all other inquiries and responsibilities. Quite obviously, they cannot keep this up for very long. Once police dispositions revert to normal, the whole trouble could start again.
And while the looting of shops has taken centre stage in the TV coverage, it has been less widely reported that in some places ordinary houses and blocks of flats have been torched by gangs, apparently just for the hell of it. Some completely innocent people have lost their homes, as the police either stood idly by or were nowhere to be seen. This seems to me a good deal more serious and worrying than a few thousand people stealing shoes and telephones from chain stores, utterly disgraceful though that is: it is quite simply an outrage.
It has often been said that the first duty of any government is to protect the population. In this respect, the powers-that-be have plainly failed.
For the first time since moving back to London from abroad five years ago, the boyf and I have wondered if we did the wrong thing.
Looking at the wider social issues, there has been a torrent of analysis in the posh prints over the past week. The most persuasive articles are those pointing out that many of the likely underlying causes are not new, and that the matter is multifaceted and complex, defying simplistic solutions. Thus, the situation obviously cannot be attributed primarily to government spending cuts; but equally obviously they are not going to help, especially those aimed at youth clubs, playing fields, and other relatively cheap ways of keeping young people occupied.
Another thing that clearly doesn't help is large-scale youth unemployment, a continuing blight not only here but across most of Europe.
But these essentially "economic" and "political" arguments do not really do it for me. I am more interested in the "cultural" explanations, involving arguments about long-term moral decline, the collapse of respect for authority, the disintegration of the idea of society as something to which we all belong (pace Mrs Thatcher), and the eclipsing of notions of solidarity and fairness by those of greed, selfishness and materialism -- and an ever-coarsening popular culture, obsessed with "bling" and "celebrities", that endlessly encourages people to think that they should be judged by the objects they possess.
In short, civilisation is falling apart. This cannot fairly be blamed on the present government, or the previous one -- it is clearly a longer-term phenomenon than that -- so party-political point-scoring is pretty irrelevant at the present time. The media have a lot to answer for, in my view, for where else does the "popular culture" come from?
But politicians cannot escape all blame, and the same goes for many of the other "important people" in society, of whom greedy bankers and City fatcats are only the most obvious examples. Peter Oborne is very persuasive in The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom when he points out that
"the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up."
Oborne goes on to describe the Financial Times's glossy weekend magazine How To Spend It as "repellent", something I have always felt myself, but I never imagined I would see a commentator from the Right echo my thoughts. He goes on to lambast tax-avoiding millionaires like Richard Branson and Philip Green, as well as senior parliamentarians such as Francis Maude and Gerald Kaufman who made extravagant expenses claims and have escaped unscathed.
Of the Prime Minister, Oborne writes:
"The tragic truth is that Mr Cameron is himself guilty of failing this test. It is scarcely six weeks since he jauntily turned up at the News International summer party, even though the media group was at the time subject to not one but two police investigations. Even more notoriously, he awarded a senior Downing Street job to the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, even though he knew at the time that Coulson had resigned after criminal acts were committed under his editorship. The Prime Minister excused his wretched judgment by proclaiming that 'everybody deserves a second chance'. It was very telling yesterday that he did not talk of second chances as he pledged exemplary punishment for the rioters and looters."
"Let's bear in mind that many of the youths in our inner cities have never been trained in decent values. All they have ever known is barbarism. Our politicians and bankers, in sharp contrast, tend to have been to good schools and universities and to have been given every opportunity in life."
Britain, he concludes, "needs a moral reformation". I cannot but agree -- but where will it come from, and how will better values be instilled in the populace? I wish I could see a means to that end.