Contrition first, as indeed it should be. As the dramatic and infinitely dispiriting events of the week unfolded day after day, I, like so many others, wanted first and foremost to make sense of it, to impose some kind of intellectual order on the physical disorder, to explore how on earth it had come to this. I reject totally and utterly those who have attacked people like me, concerned to think about causes, as apologists for riot, looting and mayhem. But I freely acknowledge, as I’ve read back over my writing these last few days, that there’s been an absence. The victims. But that absence has been in my blog, more than in my heart. Today I want first to put that right.
BBC Radio 4’s Jim Naughtie was broadcasting from Tottenham this morning. In a moving interview with a young African mother with a 6 month old baby, whose home has been completely destroyed, whose possessions have all gone, whose baby now wears clothes given by charitable citizens and eats food provided by local supermarkets, the terrible human cost of what’s happened was laid bare. Today also we learnt that a fifth man has died directly as a result of the disorder, a 68 yr-old attacked as he tried to put out a fire in Ealing. What a way to end almost 70 years of life. The appalling murder of three Muslim men in Birmingham, mown down wantonly and in cold blood, has rightly sent a shiver of revulsion and dismay through the land. And these are just the most dramatic tip of a much larger iceberg. At one level, it really doesn’t matter a fig what caused the riots, what “sickness” lies at the heart of it all, even what we must now do to try and re-build our shattered society. We must first stand in humble and contrite solidarity with those who’ve suffered so grievously.
And now to the cautious optimism. I have to be honest and say that the emphasis is more on the caution than it is on the optimism. Yesterday’s pointless recall of parliament was frankly as depressing, and a lot more predictable, than the looting and rioting itself. Listening to David Cameron and Theresa May, and no less Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman, made me want to reach for the sick bag if not the cyanide pill. Sir Hugh Orde has wonderfully punctured May’s self-important pomp by revealing that the change in police tactics came not from breathless politicians returning at such personal cost from their holidays, but from professional policemen learning with admirable speed from their utterly unexpected and bitter experiences in the previous 48 hours.
So where’s the optimism? For me, it comes from an entirely unexpected source. It comes from right-winger Peter Oborne writing in the equally right-wing Daily Telegraph. When someone from that part of the political spectrum writes with more compassion, more sense, more honesty, and more insight than any politician from anywhere on the left or the right, something has begun to shift. I hope it will be the beginning of something, and not merely the end of a week that’s sent shock waves in all directions. Peter Oborne is right, right, right. The ghastly complacency of the well-off, their utter detachment in both social and moral terms from the poor, and the almost breathtaking hypocrisy of the governing elite, are as culpable as any individual looter helping him or herself to a wide-screen TV that will in any case only display more of the moral and economic decadence of our society. We need to change at the top, and perhaps we need to do that more urgently than we need to punish at the bottom.