I remember distinctly when religious instruction in English state schools was outlawed. It preceded the birth of last week’s rioters by a year or three. Up until the age of about twelve, I used to get my moral education in school through the preaching of Christian values in daily assemblies. Whether one is religious or not, one has to figure that the idiom of this moral education ought not to have been removed without some plan to continue the moral education somehow. It might be considered possible, even useful, to educate people about morality, community, citizenship, without demanding that children make a pact with God. Values are embedded in tradition, in a sense of belonging (civic pride), and are based on human relations (family, friends, school). The instillation of esprit de corps, or the notion of a greater collective purpose than that of any individual aim, fuels self-respect and a sense of mutual responsibility. If people in authority do not provide the foundation for this esprit de corps you can bet that young people with come up with their own. Gangs of rampaging youths organised together through social networking could just as easily have been pulling for a worthy cause. But it’s too late now.
Sure enough, once religious assemblies were outlawed they were replaced by meaningless activities and collective head scratching about what to do. The timing of this pedagogical innovation coincided with the enforced death of Britain as a centre of manufacturing (primary industry was already dead) and of the demise of training in technological, vocational, or artisanal skills. Meanwhile the universities underwent massive expansion so that degrees could be handed out en masse, affording the hordes of the future unemployed a chance at dejection and feelings of under-achievement on a greater scale of self-inflated ego than hitherto. Those unable to matriculate could no longer depend on a trade or a skill, but were glamorised by the laddish lager and drug culture. Their sense of social exclusion was intensified. The ironic anthem of my generation – is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? / It’s a crazy situation, but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol – became the disturbing reality of the next. The political landscape was squashed into an ugly composite portrait: a set of homogeneous white men distinguishable only by their respective red, blue and yellow ties. The lack of purpose in the individual lives of poor youths was mirrored in the lack of political will to really do anything about social fragmentation and ever-widening inequality. The lack of political choice led to disengagement, apathy, fatalism. Votes, as it became painfully obvious in the last General Election, have ceased to mean anything. Go to Burger King or go to MacDonald’s. In the end you get much the same thing: a bland burger that will kill you eventually.
What happened to the spirit of the Blitz?
These riots were not mindless. This violence did not come out of the clear blue sky. The situation has been produced by the aimless and feckless politicking of a generation and it is time that somebody stood up and took responsibility. There can be all the talk in the world about the future policing of this kind of collective outburst, but until somebody starts talking seriously about how to teach values and virtues, and until somebody starts to think seriously about how communities work, there will only be one certainty: it will happen again.