Analysis: Britain's riots and the triumph of cynicism

What we are seeing in Britain's four nights of wildness is a crisis driven by a culture of false entitlement and instant gratification, former ambassador Jeremy Kinsman writes.

Not long after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., London police warned the Canadian High Commission that they expected there would be a similar jihadist assault on the London Underground some day.

When the predicted attack indeed occurred four years later it was nonetheless a shock to learn that it had been the work of young men born in Britain, including an elementary school teaching assistant.

The revelation caused a deep crisis of official conscience over the apparent alienation of minority and especially Islamic youth. A side effect was that the incident galvanized a form of Islamophobia in some places and the racist English Defence League mushroomed.

In February, looking back at the experience, Prime Minister David Cameron scolded Britain for having tolerated "segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values."

He then sought to counter this alienation through the somewhat abstract concept of "Big Society," the hallmark being civic engagement to rebuild a shared sense of community.

Last week, the most devastating riots in a generation rocked those hopes.

Violence and wanton destruction raced through England from London to Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol.

This time, though, the surprise was that the violence had nothing to do with race or religion at all. But that is not necessarily good news.

The threat from within

Londoners remain in shock over the wildness that took over so many neighbourhoods for four nights until rain, vigilante-style self-defence and, eventually, police saturation won them back.

Looters in central Birmingham rip off a home cinema shop on Tuesday. (Reuters)

For four days, the continuous wail of sirens wrenched Londoners to their gut and their British sense of propriety. Even in neighbourhoods whose High Streets escaped the burning and looting, the shops are boarded up.

English gumption could handle the Blitz, and any number of attacks from outside. This is a more baffling threat from within.

Talk of alienation — this time the alienation of jobless urban youths — comes naturally.

But these riots probably had more to do with unconditioned criminality. Semi-organized gangs morphed into mobs who trashed the places where they live.

For my part, I doubt deeply that the primary reason behind this wave of law breaking was simply resentment by urban youth over a dismal future.

Rather, it lies in the woeful lack of role models thrown up by modern-day Britain whose pulsing drumbeat of empty celebrity-driven materialism has drowned out any other sound, at least on the streets where the rioters come from.

False entitlement

What we have seen here is a crisis driven by a culture of false entitlement and instant gratification.

In its media, all Britain sees these days are material excess and obscene income disparities, typified by the banks and financial services industry in The City, whose endemic greed can make Wall Street look like an ashram.

Today's Britain is a country where reality TV shows rule the ratings, and where the phony constantly trumps the true — in media, politics and much of public life. (Does anyone really think the officially concocted fable of Kate Middleton and that nice Prince William has any resonance in central Birmingham or Liverpool?)

These rioters were acting in their own reality shows. Cameron called them and their perpetrators "sick."

But we should probably note that it is the second time in a month he has had to denounce organic "sickness" in Britain.

In July, it was directed at the phone hacking and bribery by tabloid newspapers who were shown to have basically co-opted Britain's self-serving political class, a group of politicians already stained by revelations of widespread, fraudulent expense claims. And for lying, as Brits will constantly tell you, about things like the invasion of Iraq.

No Tahrir Square

There were no Tahrir Square ideals of human rights on display in Britain this past week.

Nor was this Greece playing out its anger over budgetary cuts, or Paris over the real exclusion of young black Frenchmen from jobs and education; nor even London itself a few months ago over sharp hikes to university tuition.

Few of these current rioters are taking classes or using the libraries that Cameron's current austerity measures are threatening to close.

These rioters, rather, flaunted the anti-authoritarian spirit that has become sadly familiar through years of soccer hooliganism. By so overtly breaking the law, they are sticking it to the police, and hence to authority.

Britain's police are currently very unpopular, their credibility weakened by the persistent evasion of responsibility over a series of recent police killings -- of an innocent Brazilian, and a bystander at the G20 riots a year ago. So another death at their hands was understandably combustible.

Still, I know first-hand how the London police have reached out to local communities in ways the French police have never dreamed of. Now, though, they are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, charged with indecision and having "surrendered our streets."

Losing out to cynicism

David Cameron is a decent man who clearly believes there are enduring British values that ought to bind British society together, as I do. But this fond belief is losing out to cynicism.

On urban streets, the credibility of British public institutions — Parliament, the Church, media, the BBC, the police, the establishment — is drained.

A few weeks ago, my CBC article on the Murdoch mess prompted one reader to comment that the enduring fault is in ourselves — we choose, perhaps unconsciously, to allow low-end junk to dominate the media by consuming it so uncritically.

Indeed, it is now up to the English to rally behind some genuine self-criticism, to pull for something more significant than simply cheering on a crackdown on hooligans or some other vapid political slogan. Supporting decent public education would be a good start.

Whatever, we wish them well. The bell tolls not for them alone.