Fighting Words

Britons Have Been Violent and Cruel for Generations

Still, England has not yet collapsed into a nightmare of destruction and despair.

Sweeping the streets in London after riots

I realized that the collapse of British society into a Hobbesian nightmare of mutual predation and despair was still some distance off when I caught two little straws in the wind. The first was a well-framed photograph of a badly scorched bit of London, taken on the morning after a night of riots and vandalism. Apart from heavily accoutered cops, the only human figures on the scene consisted of a forest of sleeveless forearms, all brandishing the long handles of mops and heavy-duty scrubbing brushes. The ordinary working day had scarcely begun, but the process of digging out and cleaning up, inaugurated by the volunteer locals, was already under way. Of course, I thought to myself. Inflict a physical disaster on any British city, but especially on London, and the inhabitants seem to know, without any previous training for the role, that they have been cast in a remake of Britain Beats the Blitz.

The second exhibit you may already have seen. If not, then make haste to YouTube and watch the video of Pauline Pearce. Pearce is a resident, of West Indian descent, of the London borough of Hackney. She is a woman suffering from a physical disability and on an early night of the disorders, she had found herself confronted and menaced on the street by crowds of young hooligans and help-yourself artists. By the time the next day rolled around, the whole area knew of the terrific on-site harangue she had delivered and of the vials of shame that she had upended over the heads of the offenders. She was being stopped in the street and invited to revisit the high points again. For undiluted outrage and brilliant street humor, the result is hard to beat. Interviewed the next day, Pearce took a strong line on property rights, demanding to know why, if people worked and saved to buy a car, anyone should have the nerve to come along and set fire to it. She then pointed across the street and asked how the thugs knew there weren’t babies asleep next to the windows that were suddenly red with arson.

It was quite something and, again, there is nothing the British like more than the sight of a tough motherly figure giving the layabouts a piece of her mind. So perhaps the resources of civilization are not yet exhausted. Still, this leaves open the question of why so many British people also enjoy battering and maiming strangers, destroying or damaging landmark buildings (probably without knowing that that’s what they are), and pretending to come to the aid of wounded foreign tourists, the better to lift things from their backpacks.

There are two unhelpful approaches to this, the first of them based on the assumption—still very widespread in the American press—that there is something essentially un-English about gratuitous violence. A second approach makes the opposite emphasis and consists of saying, in effect, look up your Dickens and your Mayhew and your Engels: The London of a few generations ago was a scene of mob rule as well as class rule. Life was cheap, justice was expensive; nobody was more cruel to children than the English; and no peaceful citizen was safe from the footpad, the highwayman, and the pickpocket. This “nothing new under the sun” theory is too callous and doesn’t really succeed in explaining anything. But nor, necessarily, does the alternative theory that blames all the “new” violence on the “old” vices, of selfishness, greed, the decline of family values and religion, and so forth.

Last year, I had a debate with my brother Peter at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (His contributions to the current argument, which are among the most cogent being offered by anyone on the British right, can be found on his blog at London’s Mail on Sunday.) Curtain-raising these questions, Peter led off with some recent crime statistics and accounts of criminal incidents that were quite hair-raising. He basically challenged me to say whether I would have believed such stories, or ever expected them to come true, in the more innocent England of our boyhood.

Without resorting too glibly to the Dickens/Mayhew/Engels defense cited above, I found that I could. Vicious crime was constantly spoken of in undertones—and the names of “bad” neighborhoods in quite respectable towns were likewise whispered about—by people who quite genuinely feared the underclass and in particular its violent children. In more famously “bad” cities, like Glasgow and Liverpool and Belfast, one heard credible reports of whole streets and areas and housing estates where it wasn’t worth chancing a visit. (These same districts of urban blight, as I hastened to remind the audience for our debate, tended also to be the setting of very dogged traditional, religious, and family values, often expressed by Protestant-Catholic warfare of a sort that was later to mount a real challenge to the British state.)

Then there were the successive panics about feral youth. In the mid-’60s, street and beachfront clashes between Mods and Rockers petrified the respectable and set magistrates competing with each other in the stiffness of their sentences for fans of the Who. Pure panic in the early 1970s effectively banned Stanley Kubrick’s version of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. More recent was Britain’s most disgusting export as well as a poisonous recreation: the mobilization of huge squads of ugly drunks at soccer matches. More recently, though, the introduction of mass CCTV has allowed an amazing degree of crowd control even at this level.

So how much fresh bad news is there really under the sun? Friends of mine tend to stress the laws that are never enforced, the grinning bullies who walk free, the waste of police time on politically correct trivia, and the general “defining down” of unacceptable behavior. But the only really new development, without historical analog, is the emergence of gangs and even small-scale “communities” that feel they owe no civic or political or in many cases religious loyalty to the state or its institutions. These groups and areas often detest each other as much as they do the wider society: There has been graphic violence, for example, between Afro-Caribbean and Asian Muslim factions. Clearly, also, these are the sort of rank, polluted waters in which white supremacist and jihadist groups can find their fishing grounds. I remind you that all of this was already an extremely clear and present danger, long before the all-purpose expression “the cuts” was being used for all-purpose purposes.