ENGLAND is schizophrenic. There is one country on television, an End-of-Days-land, where swarms of black-hooded youths saunter from shop to shop, unchallenged, unabashed, looting, smashing, their destruction wanton and their authority absolute. This is England, broken glass and shattered delusion.
And there is the country of the mind’s eye, not the Arcadian idyll it maybe once was, or at least was once supposed to be, no longer a Sceptr’d Isle, but a nation with a sense of nation, governed by the rule of law and for the best interests of society. That is England, too. That was England, before.
Before this. Before the gangs emerged from the shadows and into the light, showing their power. Showing their numbers, their morals, their beliefs and their lack of belief. Their desire only to acquire, their demand that those who offer no respect should be respected absolutely. Their boredom and their rage.
And the English, too, are schizophrenic. Not in the sense that there are those who observe the looting that has ravaged the country’s streets for four nights, initially under the thin guise of a protest at a police shooting, now openly, brazenly, a race for as many people as dare to acquire as much as they can carry, and there are those who participate. Humanity has always been divided between those who will and those who won’t.
But in the discussion over how to respond to rule of the mob, England’s schizophrenia has been laid bare. This is a country in the grip of a crisis. There is the one on the streets, and the one in the mind. The former is rather more pressing, rather more urgent. The resolution of the latter will decide whether the flames of August 2011 are the first flickers of a fire that will burn for years.
Quite why the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leicester and Gloucester – even Gloucester! – are this morning spattered with broken glass is a question I am not qualified to answer. Most people aren’t. That has not stopped the majority trying.
There are, as far as is possible to tell, two basic schools of thought on the subject. One, infused from the right, is that this is simply the rising up of an underclass – meaning a group of people who have fallen out of society, thanks to endemic poverty – who are simply grasping whatever they can. There is no purpose, no greater meaning. They are robbing Currys and JD Sports to get what they want, the trainers and the TVs they cannot afford.
And there is one borne on the left which states that this is what happens when politicians neglects an entire stratum of the populace; when the non-vote winning poor are left to rot. They have been “disconnected” from their community, their country. This is not a place that exists for them, it exists despite them, and this is their attempt to find their voice. They must be engaged, listened to, understood, if they are to understand in turn why what they have done is wrong.
The former dogma suggests it is the kids in the black hoods who have failed society. The latter insists it is society who has failed them.
That may be oversimplifying it, but to listen to the debate over both short and long-term responses, it is evident that this is the theoretical divide which exists.
In the age of the saturated, 24-hour media, of the phone-in show and You To Us At Sky Dot Com, that debate has been endless, a white noise to deafen the senses as the eyes watch scenes the brain cannot process. It is rendered worse by the fact that there are two different questions being asked.
One is how to stop the looting tonight and tomorrow. That is one the right can answer. They issue the angry calls of the indignant: send in the army. Fire plastic bullets. Water cannon. Crack skulls. Police. Forget consent, police. The left responds, but in unconvincing jargon, almost like a sociological rugby scrum. Connect, engage, understand.
The problem with that is that these are not responses for today. They are responses for the next year, for the next decade. The right does not offer answers for tomorrow. The harder the crackdown, the greater the backlash.
The right does not care about that, of course. True rightists would suggest that a long-term crackdown is hardly a bad thing. It is not a great leap of faith to suggest that those who would favour sending in the troops would then see the culprits sent to the army. There are buzzwords, leitmotifs, here, too: discipline, most notably.
And yet, with every passing night, with every smouldering fire, it is harder and harder to argue. I was raised a liberal, taught the values of tolerance and understanding. I do not want to see a Tory-run martial state. And yet I find myself in the midst of an existential crisis: I want to stop watching cities in which I live, have lived and in which I work and have worked destroyed by a mob. And I find that the liberal response just is not enough. So I start wondering if maybe sending the army in isn’t such a bad idea. I ask myself why the police stand by and watch when no other country would have allowed things to degenerate so far. The French would have fired already, not to kill but certainly to warn. The Italians too. Why don’t we?
I tweeted on Monday night that this, to me, is not a riot: that implies some degree of politicisation, some degree of cause. This is a crime spree, conducted by an underclass. The response from some correspondents was one of agreement, from others of disgust at the use of such a polarising, such a loaded term.
I think I understand – as much as someone not versed in sociological theory can – why it is happening: it is the ultimate effect of a youth culture centred on the expression of success through acquisition, the consequence of a society obsessed by consumerism. It started in London because that is where the gap between rich and poor is most visible, most tangible, and it has spread elsewhere as the urban deprived have realised there is no crime if enough people do it.
And I comprehend the idea that we need to assess, when the rubble is rebuilt and the flames have died down, what has driven people to such anger, why there is a generation of Britons who feel such resentment to authority, who demand respect but refuse to give it, who see society as something that stands in the way of doing what they want.
Again, I have my own theories, and again, it is hard not to question the validity of modern liberalism. It is easy to blame Thatcher, and her wilful destruction of society as a unit, her evident belief in the primacy of the individual. Whose side are you on? My own.
And yet the liberal theories that have built our society seem at fault, too: discipline has been removed from families and from schools. This would seem to be the second, perhaps third, generation where children have been raised to believe there are no consequences for their actions, where teachers cannot touch them for fear of dismissal, where the police have been told they need the consent of the community.
Maybe more discipline is required. Maybe what we have always considered understanding is mollycoddling. Maybe we are culpable. That does not excuse what has happened, of course, but nothing happens without a reason, without triggers and factors. But maybe not.
It is a hard time to be a liberal. It is a schizophrenic time in a schizophrenic land. This is a country that has lost its mind. As we all seek answers, it is hard not to do the same.