Politics & Policy

London in Flames

The mayhem in the British capital has been a long time coming.

As we now know from Rahm Emanuel, one should never waste a good crisis.

It is in this practical spirit that some in the United Kingdom have leapt onto their soapboxes and, like Cassandra finally released from her curse, happily proclaimed, “I told you so.” On the BBC’s Newsnight show on Monday evening, socialist former mayor Ken Livingstone directly linked the criminality of the thugs in London to the austerity measures introduced by the Conservative-Liberal coalition. (Which, as with most “cuts,” only slow the rate of growth.) The rioting, he said, is “the fault of the government because basically, you go all over London, I was up in Tottenham. Tottenham has had a 9 percent cut nearly in its government grant. The youth centers are closing, people are seeing all the sort of things they used to rely on going.”

Aside from being spectacularly wide of the mark — not to mention making unpalatable and irresponsible excuses for mindless violence — this betrays a line of thought whose conclusion is, frankly, terrifying. Since when was this part of the social compact? There are all sorts of things that British voters do not like, but they can not all turn to anarchy when they fail to get what they want. What will become of our democracy if we are held hostage in this way? If a 9 percent cut in spending is met inevitably with three days of violence, looting, arson, and now a death, then we may as well pack up and go home, conceding to the barbarians that we have no choice any more but to cower at their feet and feed them. From heaven, Hobbes is wryly smiling.

But feed them we have. All but the most psychopathic criminals determine their behavior by the likely consequences of their actions. The harsh truth is that too many of those running riot on London’s streets believe that they can get away with it. Some of them will. They are accustomed to being protected under the forgiving carapace of the Left, most eloquently represented by a BBC that is still myopically laboring under the misapprehension that this behavior has anything whatsoever to do with the initial complaint — that a man was shot dead by police — and is thus determinedly rechristening criminals as “protesters.”

“Protesters against what?” one might ask. It is an empty question. Those who are setting fire to London and kicking down its doors — destroying small businesses and family homes while they are at it — are not victims, nor are they “protesters,” and they hold no legitimate claim to the legacy of Henry David Thoreau. They are what we used to call delinquents, back in the time when we were prepared to defend our civilization from those who would wreck it. They are smashing up England’s capital city because they want to smash something up. They saw their opportunity, and they took it; the opportunity to do some damage, to take that flat-screen television that they wanted, and to beat people up with impunity. There is no Marie Antoinette in this scenario, nor is there a Montgomery Bus Company. Make no mistake about it, lest you fall into the trap with Ken Livingstone: You are not seeing anything which comes within a country mile of virtue. The virtuous are not out on the streets, but sitting at home trying to explain to their children what is happening and hoping that their insurance holds.

While Livingstone and his ilk are peddling suicidal indulgences, there is however one level at which they are inadvertently correct: These riots were inevitable. This violence is the unavoidable by-product of an endemic neglect which has been anything but salutary: Neglect by parents, who have come to expect their responsibilities to be nationalized and their vital role arrogated by social services and the schools; neglect by those schools, which have singularly failed to instill any discipline, and which are in many cases legally prohibited from removing disruptive, even violent, children; neglect by the courts, which have failed to prosecute the guilty and have redefined wickedness as illness or disability; and neglect by Parliament, which has pig-headedly failed to address the problems of ghettoization while systematically disarming and emasculating the law-abiding public.

The riots are certainly not the product of austerity, nor of the “tough” times that too much spending has made certain — Britain has an admirable and well-documented history of sailing stoically through adversity, and its imposition rarely pushes us onto the streets. Instead, they are the result of too much care, of a short-termism which inflicts blow upon bruise and relegates the worst off in our society to endless underclass status, all in the name of their emancipation.

This has little to do with David Cameron’s vision of a “Big Society.” Britain has not been failed by the exchequer, but by the perverted but persistent fallacy that crime is an expression of social injustice and ever greater spending on government handouts a panacea. It is a total absence of tough love and an unwillingness to look the unpleasant truth in the face that has led us to this day.

By demonstrating an unyielding fealty to liberal economics, Britain has been steadily building an underclass for years now. It needs addressing, and quickly. It is time that we woke up and accepted that we have created a whole group of people who simply do not respect or accept the rules of civil society. They are not fighting for bread, or equality, or freedom. They are fighting each other, and anyone who gets in the way. When I moved from England to New York, I was frequently advised to “be careful.” “Dodge the bullets,” said one particularly paranoid friend. I did not have the heart to say that I would likely be much safer in Gotham than the place I was leaving behind.

— Charlie Cooke is an editorial intern at National Review.


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