LONDON – On a map, you can draw a razor-straight line directly north from London’s gleaming financial district, known as the City, to the neighborhood of Tottenham six miles away, the epicenter of the riots that flared throughout England this month.
But as Britons recover from the worst civil disturbance to hit their country in a generation, many are asking whether another line connects the two communities: a moral decay that runs through British society.
The looting, arson and violence that killed five people sparked outrage over a “feral” underclass of mostly inner-city youths who gleefully plundered shops and destroyed livelihoods. Courts are working overtime to process hundreds of suspects, meting out harsh sentences as a deterrent, to widespread public approval.
A growing chorus of voices, however, has begun pointing out that greed and contempt for the rules aren’t just the preserve of the thugs who smashed store window.
These critics say the same cupidity and disregard for social responsibility also drove the bankers who awarded themselves big bonuses while peddling dubious financial products, the members of Parliament who bought expensive stereos or made lavish home improvements at taxpayer expense, the journalists who hacked into cellphones, the police officers who took bribes for information.
It’s an argument that is emerging from both sides of the political divide.
“Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain,” wrote Peter Oborne, chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph, one of Britain’s most conservative newspapers. “The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. … It is not just its damaged youth but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”
This is a country where businessmen are celebrated, not criticized, for their cleverness at avoiding corporate taxes, which help pay for the infrastructure that smoothes their success and the school system that educates their workforce, Oborne said.
Not that there haven’t been uplifting examples of civic conscience. Residents in some of the riot-affected neighborhoods formed broom brigades to help merchants clean up. In Birmingham, an estimated 20,000 mourners turned out for the burial of three men run over by a car while trying to protect shops and homes.
But unease over a wider collapse of values in Britain remains. Oborne’s column was followed a few days later by a commentary by freshman lawmaker Matthew Hancock in the center-right Times of London, under the headline: “It’s not left-wing to link bankers and the mob.”
Hancock, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, urged his compatriots to root out the culture of greed and recklessness that has sprung up in Britain; in its place should be a campaign to “reward effort and promote responsibility at all levels of society, including those earning the most.”
He and other commentators emphasize the misdeeds of bankers, lawmakers and other authority figures were neither directly to blame nor an excuse for the riots. The thieves and vandals who marauded through the streets must face the music.
But they operated in the same heedless pursuit of personal enrichment at others’ expense, said David Walker, a journalist. “Societies do work on themes and colorings and instincts, and we’ve been getting fairly consistent messages from the top of politics for three or four decades that greed is good, to use that cliché. That does percolate down,” Walker said. “There is a connection to be made. How explicit and how direct, we can argue about.”