LONDON — The anarchy in British cities should surprise no one. Britain has been sleepwalking into this catastrophe for 40 years. The riots up and down the country this week are the logical conclusion to the decades-long disintegration of civilized behavior. While youths throughout the Arab world rise up to demand basic human rights and democracy, our British kids smash shop windows for want of an iPad.
Any visitors to these shores in the last decade who have ventured beyond central London have seen it for themselves. In town centers on weekends drunkenness and anti-social behavior abound. There’s no place to take your family for a quiet meal, unless you want to witness gangs of marauding youths and beer-swilling thugs urinating against people’s door steps and throwing up on street corners.
But we Brits have put up with this. We’ve turned a blind eye, seeing our stoicism as a virtue. Sure, when we travel to other countries we remark to each other how much nicer, cleaner and more civilized these places are. But we forget as soon as we land at Heathrow. And because our social disintegration has happened gradually, over years, we’ve failed to notice how bad it has become. We’ve even kidded ourselves into thinking that it has some kind of quirky benefit, and we use euphemisms like “edgy” to describe London, which helps us bring the Olympic Games to our shores.
Now, this week, we’ve changed our tune. The tweeters are up in arms. “I’m so sad for my city,” said one Londoner. “Has anyone else noticed that the world has gone mad?” asked another. “Anarchy” is the word on many people’s lips.
Commentators, politicians, tweeters and pub conversationalists are asking the same question. Why did it happen? Right-wingers think it’s a lack of discipline and personal responsibility. Left-wingers say it’s the absence of opportunity and hope, made worse by cuts in public services.
These are interesting theories. But we’re debating it all 40 years too late. As long ago as the 1970s, when I was a boy, I witnessed a riot at a soccer match in my home city of Birmingham. It made the regional news headlines, but no more. Soccer hooliganism was common currency by then, and had been for a decade.
We dealt with violence in soccer grounds — only after scores of people were killed — but failed to tackle the causes. So it sprouted up in our town and city centers, getting worse and worse with each passing decade, with the police containing it, never eradicating it. At the same time, home life decayed, putting Britain at the top of the league tables for broken families. Our education system has failed too many. A whole section of our community has been disenfranchised, so much so that the term “underclass” is common currency. We’ve become a selfish, me-first society, where it’s OK to do something wrong as long as you get away with it — from dodging train fares to grabbing someone’s wallet.
Hardly surprising then that youths with an inclination to intimidate, loot, and riot have grown bolder and bolder.
Who is to blame for all this? Just about every British person who is only now asking “why?” We are all to blame for turning a blind eye for 40 years, like an obese man who’s been getting bigger and bigger — and only notices when he has a heart attack.
It remains to be seen whether Britain’s riot-fueled heart attack is serious enough for us all to realize that our society is “broken,” as a few of our braver politicians have described it. If we fail to realize this, and fail to transform our way of doing things, then the riots of the last few days will be pigeon feed compared with what will follow.
There’s no reason why Britain has to be like this. Violence isn’t ingrained in our DNA. We can change. First we must follow New York’s lead — from as long ago as the mid-’80s — and arrive on a zero-tolerance approach to crime and anti-social behavior of any sort. We need to put people in the cells without listening to the sob stories that have traditionally made Brits go soft on crime. That alone will be a massive change, consuming vast police resources and hugely extending our prison capacity.
Secondly, we must use every tool at our disposal — financial, educational, and cultural — to transform our society, promoting respect, tolerance, honesty, generosity of spirit and sharing of wealth in all its forms. We must see family breakdown as our collective failure. Again, a massive change.
A combination of enforcement and social transformation will lead to more decency and less selfishness and aggression. We’ll begin to create the kind of society that other Western countries have. A society that cares.
People up and down the land, especially those like me with young kids, will be looking to see what happens next. We’ll study the reaction. We’ll analyze whether anarchy will finally produce action.
And some of us, I’m afraid, will ready ourselves for a move elsewhere.