By Swapan Dasgupta
‘Turning point’ is an expression used casually in the search for drama amid the mundane. The four-day orgy of looting and destruction witnessed in London and other English cities were, however, far from ordinary. Sunil Gavaskar was absolutely right in saying that had similar disturbances occurred in a desi city a touring England cricket was playing in, there would have been an outcry about ‘unsafe’ India with tabloids screaming for the boys to be brought home by the earliest BA flight.
Indians tend to be relatively resilient in the face of disorder. Yet, even when judged by our permissive standards, last week’s outpouring of underclass spontaneity was extraordinary. To my generation of shrinking Anglophiles for whom England has forever meant long summers, grey drizzle, dog lovers, polite drivers, Radio 4, tweed jackets, sensible shoes and, most important, an innate sense of decency and fair play, the England of last week was one we would rather not know.
The looters and arsonists were mainly teenagers who, in the England of Enid Blyton, should have been picnicking on thick ham sandwiches, washed down with lashings of ginger beer in their summer holidays. Instead, they were kick boxing store windows, casually setting fire to shops and cars, robbing passers-by who looked respectable and looting cigarettes and cash from the corner shop of a frightened Mr Patel. Some of the looters were 8 years old!
Of course there was a complete failure of policing. The men in uniform were nowhere to be seen when people needed them most. But, to be fair, policing in Britain has always depended on the assumption of widespread good sense: delinquency and criminality were aberrations, except at football matches. Last week has proved everyone wrong. David Cameron was right: it was a “sick” Britain that was on show for four horrible days.
For a Prime Minister to dub parts of English society “sick” is strong stuff, maybe not as strong as Nicolas Sarkozy who denounced the Paris rioters six years ago as ‘scum’. Sir Max Hastings was more vivid: “They are essentially wild beasts…They respond only to instinctive animal impulses…”
The words of indignation can multiply and became more colourful. The question is: how will England (Scotland claims it doesn’t have a feral problem) react? Will the contrived sense of community created by men and women with brooms sweeping up the debris and comforting a distressed Mrs Patel subsume the ugliness? Like the candle marches asserting the ‘spirit of Mumbai’, will the spirits of Hackney or Clapham or even, of all places, Gloucester, provide the proverbial healing touch? At least till the “wild beasts”, now with an acquired taste for flatscreen TVs, designer track suits and free booze and cigarettes, re-emerge next summer to replenish the mythology around the adventures of August 2011.
The nightmare of last week will become a ‘turning point’ not because the English police will now be empowered to use water cannon and plastic bullets on riotous mobs. The end of ‘soft’ policing may well be inescapable but no-nonsense policing can’t address the problem of dysfunctional youth.
The problem may well be symptomatic of the “final crisis” of capitalism that Marxists have been anxiously awaiting for the past 100 years. But shaving off the excesses of a welfare state that the country can no longer afford doesn’t explain why rioters should target supermarkets and shops selling electronic goods, mobile phones and leisure wear. England didn’t experience its version of Tahrir Square or Syria. The riots exposed the alarming extent to which a relatively pampered society has bred an underclass that has no sense of values. In the absence of any moral authority—at home, in school, the church, and from a wider family and settled neighbourhood—many young Britons have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
The only exceptions may well be the immigrant communities where ties of family, neighbourhood and religion are deterrents to waywardness, and failure is an unaffordable indulgence. Theirs is a harsh world and a world that is seemingly at odds with modernity. Yet, theirs is also a world not shaped by moral illiteracy.
Once upon a time, the English were exactly like them. Britain was “Great” then.
Sunday Times of India, August 14, 2011