It was a reasonable guess that, once the government had appointed a group of the great and good to investigate the summer riots, somehow we would all have to share the blame. It is a central tenet of liberal Britain that while criminals may share some of the blame for the acts which they perpetrate, they are invariably driven to committing them through the negligence and callousness of the rest of us. Meanwhile, the real problems — those created by an unreformed welfare system — are ignored.
The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel has certainly not let us down on this score. Among the factors it blames for the riots in its interim report published this week is ‘conspicuous consumption’. ‘In our conversations with rioters and young people who did not riot,’ the report asserts, ‘it was clear that brands and appliances are strongly associated with their sense of identity and status.’ In other words: if we want to tackle the causes of the riots we must all stop lusting after that iPad or flashy coat.
Perhaps the panel is aware of a period in British history when people did not want to feather their nests. No matter how rich or poor, humans tend to want to improve their lot. Yes, a group of hardcore thieves targeted specific clothing and electrical shops, from which they emerged carrying armfuls of goods. But to extrapolate from this that the riots were somehow inspired by shopping envy is lazy and wrong.
On the contrary, modern consumer societies can claim to be among the most peaceful ever. For a truly violent society, it is necessary to look for one whose prevailing values are obsessive religious devotion, political ideology or nationalistic identity.
The panel is midway through its report, and one can guess at its final conclusions: we need better sports facilities, youth clubs and drama groups to keep potential rioters off the streets.