On a map, you can draw a razor-straight line directly north from London’s gleaming financial district, known as the City, to the neighborhood of Tottenham six miles away, the epicenter of the riots that flared throughout England this month.
But as Britons recover from the worst civil disturbance to hit their country in a generation, many are asking whether another line connects the two communities: a moral decay that runs through British society from top to bottom.
The looting, arson and violence that killed five people sparked outrage over a “feral” underclass of mostly inner-city youths who gleefully plundered shops and destroyed livelihoods. Courts are working overtime to process hundreds of suspects, meting out harsh sentences as a deterrent, to widespread public approval.
A growing chorus of voices, however, has begun pointing out that greed and contempt for the rules aren’t just the preserve of the thugs who smashed store windows and helped themselves to plasma TVs and designer clothes.
These critics say the same cupidity and disregard for social responsibility also drove the bankers who awarded themselves big bonuses while peddling dubious financial products, the members of Parliament who bought expensive stereos or made lavish home improvements at taxpayer expense, the journalists who hacked into cellphones, the police officers who took bribes for information.
It’s an argument that might strike some listeners as a classic liberal critique, but one that, surprisingly, is emerging from both sides of the political divide.
“Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain,” wrote Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s most conservative newspapers. “The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet.... It is not just its damaged youth but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”
This is now a country where top businessmen are celebrated, not criticized, for their cleverness at avoiding corporate taxes, which help pay for the infrastructure that smooths their success and the school system that educates their workforce, Oborne said. (A few days later, billionaire Warren Buffett caused a storm in the U.S. by suggesting that the richest Americans ought to pay higher taxes.)
The scathing analysis of the malaise gripping Britain clearly struck a nerve: Oborne’s column has garnered more than 50,000 “likes” on Facebook and spawned nearly 5,000 online comments, most of them in support.
Not that there haven’t been uplifting examples of civic conscience. Residents in some of the riot-affected neighborhoods formed broom brigades to help merchants clean up. In Birmingham last week, an estimated 20,000 mourners turned out for the burial of three men run over by a car while trying to protect shops and homes; the impassioned call for peace by the father of one victim has become a defining moment of the unrest, akin to Rodney G. King’s plea of “Can we all get along?” in the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
But unease over a wider collapse of values in Britain remains. Oborne’s column was followed a few days later by a commentary by freshman lawmaker Matthew Hancock in the center-right Times of London, under the headline: “It’s not left-wing to link bankers and the mob.”
Hancock, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, urged his compatriots to root out the culture of greed and recklessness that has sprung up in Britain; in its place should be a campaign to “reward effort and promote responsibility at all levels of society, including those earning the most.”
“I’ve had lots of positive feedback, largely from Tories and a couple of left-wingers who’ve said, ‘Finally, a Tory saying this sort of stuff,’” Hancock said by telephone from his parliamentary district, an affluent area in eastern England. “I really hoped somebody would take me to pieces, and that hasn’t happened.”
He and other commentators are quick to emphasize the misdeeds of bankers, lawmakers and other authority figures were neither directly to blame nor an excuse for the riots. The thieves and vandals who marauded through the streets must face the music.
But they operated in the same heedless pursuit of personal enrichment at others’ expense, said David Walker, a journalist and advisor to an organization that promotes the importance of the social sciences.
“Societies do work on themes and colorings and instincts, and we’ve been getting fairly consistent messages from the top of politics for three or four decades that greed is good, to use that cliche. That does percolate down,” Walker said. “There is a connection to be made. How explicit and how direct, we can argue about.”
For someone on the left like Walker, the erosion of community values has been decades in the making, a byproduct of Margaret Thatcher’s free-market revolution and her famous declaration that “there is no such thing as society.”
Thatcherism unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit that set the stage for impressive economic growth and the well-heeled, comfortable lifestyles that many Brits enjoy today, which the “New” Labor Party of former Prime Minister Tony Blair was happy to continue nurturing. But critics cite a darker side to Thatcher’s legacy, a nation unmoored from the value of societal responsibility.
There are signs that both the Conservatives and the opposition Labor Party are picking up on the theme of moral rot on both ends of the social spectrum, though how, or whether, the government will act on it remains to be seen.
In a speech last week, Prime Minister David Cameron categorically condemned the “pure criminality” recently on display and vowed to maintain public order, help parents, improve schools, foster a sense of responsibility and decrease welfare dependency among the poor.
But he added: “In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting.... In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement.
“The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society,” Cameron said. “Because whatever the arguments, we all belong to the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better.”