LONDON — The wolves have made their way into the parlor again in England, and this time it looks like the powers-that-be think it’s serious.
The government of the uneasy coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is trying to talk tough after several nights of murder and mayhem in the bleak public-housing tracts of the poor and unemployed in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities.
But in a society nurtured for five decades on the dole, tough talk is often regarded as all but seditious. The cracks in Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition are wide, deep and enduring.
Mr. Cameron talks of a “moral breakdown” of British society and warns that a revival of traditional values is necessary for the survival of Britain as we know it. Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, prescribes redistribution of the wealth and good will, happy talk, and avoiding “knee-jerk” solutions. “This means we must not cut taxes for the rich or take away public support for the needy,” he says.
This is the prescription for class warfare that Barack Obama — the one-time community organizer who remains enormously popular on the wrong side of the Atlantic — surely envies. Mr. Cameron, with his blunt assessment of what inevitably goes wrong in a society on the dole, not so much.
“This has been a wake-up call for our country,” the prime minister said Monday morning after a week of violence in the street and uneasiness at the hearth. “Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face. Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?”
The prime minister’s remarks, dismissed by his critics as merely a sermon that nobody needs, followed a weekend rally for “peace and racial unity” in Birmingham, the nation’s second-largest city. It was near Birmingham that three Pakistani men, guarding their shops from looters, were killed by a car that mowed them down as if they were weeds on the roadside. The driver of the car was charged with murder.
What terrorized everyone, even those far from the madding mob, was the perception, if maybe not the reality, of cops who can’t seem to get control of a seething situation. What terrorizes the prime minister, as well as many others, is the implication in the footage taken from scores of security cameras in looted stores: a ballerina in an electronics store, an official of the 2012 Olympics in London joining in the trashing of a shop, and the sight the next day of a trainer of teachers showing up in magistrates court, hiding his face in shame.
“The message was,” said an editorial in the Observer, a Sunday newspaper in London, “these are not the representatives of a deprived underclass. They are individuals who … lost their moral compass.”
Some Englishmen take comfort in a theory of cyclical slum violence, noting that similar riots wracked Liverpool, Bristol and several London neighborhoods in the early 1980s, and England is still standing. This too shall pass, and all that. But this is not the England of Mrs. Miniver, of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sunday and the stiff upper lip always, as many Americans still imagine. An enormous wave of immigration from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean has changed, probably irretrievably, the character of Mrs. Miniver’s kind and gentle country.
And here, maybe, is a lesson for other countries that are such a magnet for “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Or at least to own a car, a television set or a washer-dryer. Many of these new immigrants yearn for the better life but are never required to conform their lives to the customs, traditions or even the language of their adopted land.
“The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations,” essayist Max Hastings wrote the other day in the Daily Mail. “They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist. Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community. … Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present. They have their being only in video games and street-fights, casual drug use and crime, sometimes petty, sometimes serious.”
Tough stuff. But last week the crime was serious. The powers-that-be are rattled.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.