In Hilary Mantel's novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, there are many horrifying moments. But perhaps the most revealing comes early on at the National Assembly when the members want to frame a Declaration of the Rights of Man. Some say that a constitution should be written first, rights existing only thanks to laws. But, as Mantel writes, "Jurisprudence is such a dull subject, and liberty so exciting."
Britain is not quite in a 1789 state, not least because our rioters have too much, not too little, and express a greater interest in luxury goods than bread. We have already tried letting them eat cake, and it doesn't work. But I thought of this passage as the summer's lawlessness began and the authorities scrambled to get abreast of it.
Over the last few years the failure of our institutions has been something of a theme of this column. Though the attack had started beforehand, one by one in recent years they have been assaulted afresh and brought themselves low.
Then in 2009 Parliament debased itself with the expenses scandal. While nobody expected MPs to be saints, nevertheless they were not expected to behave so badly and so uniformly. Though the looters have only themselves to blame for their actions, it seems at least societally consistent that the principal objects of their desire — ridiculously outsized televisions — had also been coveted by Gerald Kaufman.
As I pointed out at the time, the unwillingness of MPs to accept responsibility for their own actions demonstrated a top-down failure in our society, their defence being, like that of so many of the looters, that, after all, everyone else was doing it.
Then the media — one of the most powerful, if accidental, British institutions — endured its own breakdown. Yet the phone-hacking scandal demonstrated not just the media's, but the country's systemic failure.
In 2003 Rebekah Brooks confirmed to a Parliamentary Committee that her newspaper's staff had paid — that is bribed — police officers. A criminal offence was admitted but nothing happened. Parliament did nothing. The Crown Prosecution Service did nothing. The police did nothing.