The Left has gone into overdrive in its attempts to rewrite the history of the riots, but the public knows the truth.
By Janet Daley
9:00PM BST 20 Aug 2011
At the margins of this consensus, there are some distant noises off. They are the desperate cries of those who fear that they have lost the argument of a lifetime and who want to persuade the great mass of the population that what it saw before its own eyes, hour by hour, night after night on the television news channels was something else altogether.
The Left-liberal camp is in overdrive in its campaign to rewrite history (or, in its own vocabulary, to alter consciousness): you did not see thousands of jubilant thugs rampaging through the streets, destroying livelihoods and property for the sheer exultant joy of it. What you saw were society’s victims responding to any or all of the following: bankers’ bonuses, MPs cheating on their expenses, unemployment, government spending cuts, poverty, social inequality, etc, etc. Their crimes were simply part of the same package of callous selfishness displayed by (as one particularly bizarre equation had it) tabloid phone hackers.
What is not ludicrous and insulting to common sense in these propositions is contradictory in its own terms. There are indeed views of the human condition which hold that all species of wickedness are connected, because they are all rooted in the fact that man is a fallen creature. But somehow I doubt that the ardent liberal secularists who were piping up last week were believers in original sin or the machinations of the Devil.
The moral equivalence that they wanted to establish between looters and arsonists on the one hand, and the perpetrators of any other kind of bad behaviour you can think of on the other, was rooted in ideological, not theological, orthodoxy. The rioting gangs could not simply be what they seemed – what they so obviously were – because that would be a devastating victory for the judgment of popular opinion over the fantasies of liberalism.
What real people know – and have known for quite a long time – is that the great tacit agreement which once held civic life together has been deliberately blown apart. There was a time within living memory when all reasonable grown-ups were considered to be on the same side. Parents, teachers, police, judges, politicians – decent citizens of every station and calling – formed an unspoken confederacy to uphold standards of behaviour within their own communities. But their shared values and expectations about human conduct were systematically undermined by a post-Sixties political ideology that preached wholesale disrespect for authority, and legitimised anti-social activity in the name of protest.
What real people saw on their television screens this fateful summer seemed to them to be the final vindication of their instinctive judgment: they may have been shocked but, on some level at least, they were not surprised that it had come to this. What else were these terrible events but the definitive disproof of a doctrine that had subverted adult authority in all its official and unofficial forms?
That doctrine goes back a long way. In fact, the politics of the Sixties were just a late incarnation of an 18th-century philosophy. We have Jean-Jacques Rousseau to thank for the basic principle that men are born good and will only behave badly if they are corrupted by authority and repressive institutions: that we need only liberate them from those false limitations and their natural moral instincts will come to the fore.
So hugely influential was this view in education and social policy that it almost succeeded in extinguishing the truths that arise from experience: people (especially young ones) will behave badly just because they can, because no one is stopping them, or has ever inculcated in them the conscientious discipline that would make them stop themselves.
The capacity for self-control, and the willingness to suppress one’s innate selfishness or cruelty, is something that adults must consciously instil in children and reinforce in other adults by their attitudes to them. The indispensable tools of social stigma and moral judgment that communities used to have at their disposal for this purpose have been stripped away, and the result – the fearless defiance of helpless authority – is what we saw in its terrifying logical conclusion on the streets. That is what real people know: that they were right all along.
So everybody agrees that this is – or could be – a turning point. The criminal justice system, which had fallen into public disrepute in recent years, due to its apparent belief that society is to blame for the acts of criminals, has been rehabilitating itself in the public mind with the “draconian” sentences it is handing down. If you think that rioters are getting tough treatment from the courts, you should hear what my newsagent would like to do to them. Real people know what “deterrence” means, even if they do not use the word.
There is some scope for genuine argument on the more political matters of depriving offenders of benefits and council homes. Making what are probably unemployable delinquents homeless and destitute might well add to our problems – but again, the feeling of real people that pitiless thugs should not be supported and housed by the taxpayer is worthy of respect. It is of incalculable importance that the courts and the welfare system reclaim the confidence of the law-abiding population. More than ever now, this is a matter of national urgency.
Somehow, we are going to have to restore trust that the operations of government and the law are not at odds with the moral inclinations of conscientious citizens. Basic to this will be the acceptance that we do not have to explain – to find legitimate reasons for – acts of wickedness: that people can do bad things for no good reason at all, and that destructive and vicious impulses are, sadly, as “natural” as charitable ones. It is futile to go on asking why the riots happened, when the question that was on the minds of most of the rioters was not “Why?” but “Why not?”