In the month since my city exploded in flames and mob violence, much has been swept clean. The burned-out blocks in Tottenham, Croydon and Clapham have been boarded up, the glaziers have repaired thousands of smashed shop windows and the courts have tried 1,715 looters, most of them young and male.
The violence is done, for now. But what’s opened up is a rupture in the ruling classes over how the riots should be understood and confronted. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party has spoken in three distinct and disharmonious voices.
It’s worth listening to each of them, because they’re talking about something that extends far beyond the grey skies of London, confronting the major cities of most of the Western world’s economies.
The first response to the riots occurred while they were under way. Mr. Cameron denounced them as the product of the “slow-motion moral collapse” of British society. “There is a major problem in our society,” he said in August, “with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong.” This wasn’t about poverty or inequality, he said, but about sheer criminality. There’d need to be tough sentences, more discipline, fewer human rights, all in order to “restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility.”
This, viewed cynically, was a summertime bid to win favour with two branches of Mr. Cameron’s party that have been alienated from the Tory mainstream since the Liberal-Conservative coalition formed in 2010: the social and moral conservatives of the backbench committee known as the Cornerstone Group; and the hard-core fans of Margaret Thatcher who insisted there was “no such thing as society” but only individuals making moral choices on their own.
But for many, this was somewhat unsatisfactory. While everyone agrees the rioters were the product of a morally challenged community prone to family breakdown, these things are a symptom, not a cause.
Something has caused thousands of Britons to enter a world where there’s nothing better to do than burn and loot, and where families don’t work. (And this was a riot of citizens, white and black, according to analyses of arrests: Almost no immigrants or their children were among those charged.) Why do moral collapse and mass criminality seem to emerge, in strikingly similar ways, every time the economy takes a dive?
That led to the second major voice. Conservative Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who referred to “the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted,” offered a larger explanation: the failure of institutions. He focused on prisons – which he said, are being used too much and are actually producing criminality, not reducing it.
Colleagues noted that an even larger problem lies in schools, which still allow – and often encourage – students to drop out at 16. As a result, a large cohort of young people – the children and grandchildren of the old English white-and black-skinned working class – have never found a place in the postindustrial economies of information and finance. And they have fallen into a set of institutions that seem almost engineered to prevent them from finding a place, tossing them into the “petty crime” grey economy, instead.
The third voice emerged this week from Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a Scotsman whose views straddle the line between the family-values Victorianism of the social conservatives and the more liberal conservatism of Mr. Clarke.
His focus was not on morality or the institutions, but on the home: Most of the rioters live in the districts that are peppered with Britain’s infamous expanses of grim postwar public-housing complexes (known as council estates). These places serve as traps: If you’re in them, you’re disconnected from the legitimate economy, without a path to a better life.
“For years now, too many people have remained unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates,” Mr. Duncan Smith wrote. “This was because we had ghettoized many of these problems, keeping them out of sight of the middle-class majority. But last month the inner city finally came to call, and the country was shocked by what it saw.”
It sounds like three men looking, from different angles, at a large machine designed to turn once-hopeful families into marginal outcasts. While they argue over how to fix it, we ought to ask whether we have such machines in our own garden.