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.
In 2008 our financial institutions lost what confidence they enjoyed from the general public. “Bankers” became a term newly synonymous not only with greed but the most reckless — and, crucially, unpunished — irresponsibility.
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.
Eventually, as is sometimes the way, the scandal came to a head and a senior head or two rolled. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson resigned and Britain went into its summer thinking that that was that. Nothing had been sorted out. No institution had worked. But there had been a tardy witch-hunt and a couple of resignations. So stasis as normal.
But then the streets lit up. And crowds of looters, unmolested by the police or any other lines of authority — for the looters saw that there were none — did what they wanted. The nervous police, actually leaderless, once again demonstrated their institutional failing when they were chased — as they have been many times in recent years — by ever more confident mobs.
It is no surprise to anyone who lives in Britain and spends their time among the people of this country that such an outbreak of violence should take place. A coarse culture and media have contributed to the population acquiring a threatening and acquisitive manner which knows no bounds and encounters no opposition. The failure of the state-school system leaves no way out through education, and the idea of a higher life is an alien concept.
It is not surprising that people did this. It is surprising the institutions could not stop them. Nothing here is easy to address. And there is no single panacea for our problems. But reform must start. And the only place in which to begin to turn around Britain is to turn around the institutions which are meant to control, define and guide us.
Some of this the present government is trying to do — Michael Gove’s reform of schools, for example, and Iain Duncan Smith’s vitally important rethink of the welfare system.
Other changes, such as Ken Clarke’s effort to consider the deterrent of prison principally through the prism of economics, have been shown to be not simply untimely but degrading.
Making our institutions work again will seem much less exciting than endless “initiatives” and “plans”. It will be less sexy than media-satisfying inquiries, “czars” and walkabouts. It will be the quiet, unheralded work of years. But it will have to start.
As Mantel wrote of the French Assembly, “They vie in the pandemonium…they gabble to relinquish what belongs to them and with eagerness even greater what belongs to others. Next week, of course, they will try to backtrack; but it will be too late.”