by Jonathan Todd
The world has looked perplexed upon the UK this week. Not standing up for justice, but reduced to”violent consumerism“. Clapham Junction isn’t Tahrir Square. We don’t need the international media to tell us something is profoundly wrong after such a debilitating implosion.
We did it to ourselves and that’s what really hurts. Whatever we call this – a Jacquerie (Gabriel Milland), an intifada of the underclass (Andrew Neil/Danny Kruger) – it’s a self-inflicted wound that must rank as one of our country’s darkest episodes in my 31 years. We don’t need to weigh the grief against the miners’ strike (a civil war in which both sides, at least as far as they were represented by Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, were wrong), Hillsborough (a football match where 96 people died) and 7/7 (mass murder of Britons by Britons) to know this is a bleak and pitiful watershed.
Over a longer horizon than my lifetime, however, the past week might seem less exceptional. Many times in the past, such as in 1780, 1816 and 1936, London saw riots arguably more violent and sometimes just as ostensibly inexplicable as now. The persistence and power of our capacity to descend to disorder and glory in anarchy should be taken as a lesson from this week.
This sits ill, though, with the vaguely whiggish sense of history defaulted to by much of the left. We like to think we’ve progressed since 1780. And, of course, in lots of ways we have. Many people have blackberries now, for one thing. 1780 was no less bloody for want of blackberries. The importance of the state’s capacity to uphold law and order is as fundamental now as in 1780 or in 1651 when Thomas Hobbes wrote the Leviathan.
But to imagine that the Leviathan of the state can be brought low simply by social media is as much of a misreading as to contend that someone loots a plasma TV because they lost their EMA. To respond to a national calamity with such pure category errors is hardly what the occasion demands. Nor are we meeting these demands by rushing to explanations heavily infused by pre-held ideologies.
For the right, this means a lack of authority in general and from fathers in particular and the destructive impacts of welfare dependency. For the left, resentments fostered by inequalities, a pervasive culture that not only tolerates but actively encourages, at many levels and countless ways, the doctrine that greed is good and that responsibilities to others are simply hindrances to be got around, not the very stuff of humanity.
Neither right or left is wholly wrong in these claims; but can we really only look deep enough into our hearts as to bleat about the same old hobby horses?
The perversity and inadequacy of this is underlined by the failure of anyone to argue in these terms beforehand. No one on the right, to the best of my knowledge, warned that absent fathers risk riots. No one on the left seriously thought the shoplifters of the world would actually unite and try to take over (although, Morrissey took that song title from a Marxist magazine, as I recall).
The plain fact is that, at least for the vast majority of us, events have blindsided us. Out of nowhere we have been exposed to primal urges and a cultural underbelly that are at once both completely alien and utterly human and of our society. The kids in Lord of the Flies were all too human and so are our looters. The difference, of course, is that those that have behaved so irresponsibly this week are, sadly, not fictional. They are our fellow citizens.
Legally and morally they must face the full consequences of their rejection of even the most basic responsibilities. It is as crass to suggest otherwise as to attempt to make cheap political hay out of events. This goes well beyond party politics. It’s about what we are as a country, as a people, as human beings. And it is an immense failure in all of these respects to have amongst us so many so detached from even the most fundamental responsibilities. We should recognise our collective failure and be open to any means, from right or left, which will best correct it.
Picasso said that destruction is the first act of creation. We’ve had the destruction. If we all now really look into our consciences, and draw the right lessons, the creation can yet follow. If we recognise the immense dignity of Tariq Jahan, and have any pride in our country and its people, we would do nothing less.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.