What real people know – and have known for quite a long time – is that the great tacit agreement which once held civic life together has been deliberately blown apart. There was a time within living memory when all reasonable grown-ups were considered to be on the same side. Parents, teachers, police, judges, politicians – decent citizens of every station and calling – formed an unspoken confederacy to uphold standards of behaviour within their own communities. But their shared values and expectations about human conduct were systematically undermined by a post-Sixties political ideology that preached wholesale disrespect for authority, and legitimised anti-social activity in the name of protest.
What real people saw on their television screens this fateful summer seemed to them to be the final vindication of their instinctive judgment: they may have been shocked but, on some level at least, they were not surprised that it had come to this. What else were these terrible events but the definitive disproof of a doctrine that had subverted adult authority in all its official and unofficial forms?
That doctrine goes back a long way. In fact, the politics of the Sixties were just a late incarnation of an 18th-century philosophy. We have Jean-Jacques Rousseau to thank for the basic principle that men are born good and will only behave badly if they are corrupted by authority and repressive institutions: that we need only liberate them from those false limitations and their natural moral instincts will come to the fore.
The capacity for self-control, and the willingness to suppress one’s innate selfishness or cruelty, is something that adults must consciously instil in children and reinforce in other adults by their attitudes to them. The indispensable tools of social stigma and moral judgment that communities used to have at their disposal for this purpose have been stripped away, and the result – the fearless defiance of helpless authority – is what we saw in its terrifying logical conclusion on the streets. That is what real people know: that they were right all along.
Edited version of Janet Daley's
UK riots: The end of the liberals’ great moral delusionRead in full here