The dust has barely settled from the recent riots, but already politicians, commentators and the public as a whole are engaged in a full-on blame game. David Cameron suggested that “parts of our society that are not just broken, but sick” are behind the violence, while David Starkey pinned it on black culture and the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke placed the blame squarely on a rather mysterious “feral underclass”. Elsewhere the riots have been blamed on a multitude of different people and policies including teenagers, the welfare state, social services and an apparently “cushy” benefits regime. None of these are the true causes of the terrible violence and looting, and the cases for each hold little water under careful inspection. However, the fact that so many people have been willing to jump to conclusions and place the blame elsewhere is in itself one of the central causes of the riots across England.
When the rioters in London, Manchester and Birmingham, not to mention a dozen other towns and cities, went on the rampage, smashing shop fronts and laying fires, there was only one thing that drove them; self-absorption. That is not to say that there weren’t other, and more significant, triggers for the riots, but that it is clear that for the main part those involved were so engulfed by the pleasure (to their minds) of causing damage and rampant materialism that they were incapable of stopping, and considering the consequences of their actions. All sense of a collective social responsibility was lost. As one commentator put it, the I came before the We. The rioters became so self-centered that the damage and violence they inflicted was lost in the fact that they were enjoying themselves.
You may wonder how I can draw any link between such thoughtless vandalism and the reactions of people who have done nothing wrong and are sickened by the riots. However, the truth is that the same self-obsession that drove the rioters on the streets is also behind the desperate blame game being played now they are over. No one has accepted any responsibility for the riots; not politicians, not the police and certainly not the general public. Anyone who was not directly involved in violence or looting has tried to wash their hands of the problem and blame it on somebody else. Just like the rioters they are placing themselves above any common social responsibility. As long as they are OK, then it is a problem for everybody else, not them.
This is all the more worrying because we’ve all played a part, however small, in causing these riots. David Cameron’s membership of the infamous Bullingdon Club, which regularly smashes up Oxford restaurants has been well documented. So too have reminders of how MPs came close to, and even crossed, the line of illegality regarding their expenses and how bankers have laid ruin to our economy. People at the lower ends of society bear a responsibility too. Who has not seen someone drop litter in a public place and not pick it up or refused to help someone in the street?
Of course, these actions can not be compared with the dreadful events of last month in London and beyond, but when the very character of our society is called into disrepute, then we all most share some part of the blame. All the actions I note above are examples of a breakdown in the responsibility we should feel towards our communities and our society as a whole. The rioters should face the full force of the law and take responsibility for their individual actions – this is certainly not an attempt to excuse their actions – but they are not to blame for the general breakdown in a social conscience. That lies with everyone, rich and poor. Once the damage is repaired and the rioters punished, this is what we should focus on. Society is not broken, but it is damaged, not helped by the populist antics of Mr. Cameron. Unless he, the government and the entire population accept some responsibility for the social problems that allowed the riots to thrive we will never truly move on from those dark days.