The Corner

London’s Burning

They say everything old is new again, and that is certainly true of the British riots. The main areas of outbreak — Tottenham, Brixton, Toxteth in Liverpool — were scenes of similar riots and disorder in the 1980s and early ’90s. To that extent, they show how 14 years of Labour-party rule merely papered over the cracks in British society. And yet there is something very different about them too. As Brendan O’Neill of Spiked says, these riots have a different focus:

Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

Brendan concludes, I think rightly, that these criminal outbursts are a “riotous expression of carelessness for one’s own community,” and that they are not expressions of working-class anger (Brendan is a Marxist, but a libertarian one). Meanwhile, the fastest-selling items on are batons and baseball bats, as people look to defend themselves and their property in the absence of an effective police.

Another left-wing friend of mine in the UK has another interesting theory — that the particular targeting of electronics and clothes shops represents an explosion of consumerism. Stay with me, because I think he has a point and I’d like to explain why. Much of the British underclass has had easy access to credit over the past decade or so — and why not, when they are on a secure income stream of state benefits — and they have spent this for the most part on TVs, video games, and “chav” fashion. That easy credit — which I should emphasize was encouraged by the loose monetary policy of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair — has now dried up, so they are looking to take for free what they previously got for nominal sums. There is more evidence for that conclusion in this BBC recording of two girls saying that the riots were about taking what they wanted, for free.

In all of this, my friend argues, “traditional working class values of thrift, self-help and neighbourhood have been replaced by a gesellschaft culture that turns all those traditional values on their head. Personal gain, self-interest and status are now the prime aspirations.” Again, I think he is right. The Left normally blames this on Margaret Thatcher, conveniently forgetting how often she exhorted exactly those values as the cornerstones of her belief and spoke about how (as Brendan demonstrates) they were under attack by the welfare state. Interestingly, as my friend noted, those values have been championed by the young urban (and predominantly leftist) middle class, who are literally sweeping the streets clean — so much so that the broom has become the unofficial symbol of resistance.

In all of this I am reminded most strongly of Myron Magnet’s classic text The Dream And The Nightmare, in which he argues that the adoption of certain values by the upper classes in the 1960s wreaked havoc on the underclasses when they adopted them in turn. As this reviewer summarizes,

The principal core, dysfunctional values learned from the upper-middle class are unrestrained individualism and liberation from responsibilities. The liberal dream of the 1960s was that unrestrained individualism and a loosening of morals would lead to freer and better society. Instead of the “dream,” the 1990s turned into a “nightmare” for the underclass.

In other words, personal gain, self-obsession, and status — the philosophy of the libertine, rather than the libertarian.

I think what we are seeing in Britain is a conflation of two liberal dreams — that of the 1960s, in which parenting and tradition went out the window, and that of the 2000s, in which self-help was replaced by easy credit, benefits, and an all-mighty “health and safety” bureaucracy — together with the unfinished nature of the Thatcher revolution. Mrs. T enabled economic Thatcherism but was unable to finish the project of what I termed social Thatcherism, whereby a free society recognized the importance of what once were called manners.

The result is a feral underclass without any understanding of tradition from right or left. Which is why I think Michael is wrong and it is doubly important that the looters be confronted not with water cannon or the army, but by the firm hand of a police force unencumbered by constraints of political correctness or “elfnsafety.” Then Her Majesty’s Government should press ahead with the education reforms of my old friend Michael Gove, which are aimed in no small part at teaching children what Britain stands for.

However, for the children brought up in the late ’90s and 2000s, I fear all is lost. I shall leave it to wiser men than I to suggest what can be done for them.

— Iain Murray’s latest book is Stealing You Blind: How Government Fat Cats Are Getting Rich Off of You.


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