“If the riots in English cities both invited and defied commentary, that was surely because they seemed so inarticulate”, wrote Harry Eyres in the weekend edition of the Financial Times.
The riots seem rooted in a deep nihilism; they were not for anything, but seemed against everything, and Eyres notes them as an English phenomenon, criticising the English upper class as being marked by an inarticulateness as marked as that of the underclass who took to the streets. Since the 17th Century, England seems to have lacked the capacity to articulate radical popular sentiment.
The names of the protest groups at the time of the English Civil War read like like a litany of radical politics. They had a hope for a better world, a building of a new Jerusalem. Cromwell’s overthrow of the English Establishment gave rise briefly to all sorts of radical Christian and democratic groups, the Levellers being the foremost.
The flowering of hopes of democracy and a new society was brief; Cromwell’s Puritans created a society every bit as oppressive as that peopled by the English aristocracy. It would be three centuries and the election of Clem Attlee in 1945 before a society emerged where there would be care for everyone. The trauma of war and the misery of the preceding decade made the English determined that they were never going back to the old ways, though they rarely articulated how they felt.
The disappointment of radical hopes is not something confined to the past, the 1970s and 1980s saw a plethora of radical groups hoping to build a new world in the land where Margaret Thatcher declared to Woman’s Own magazine in 1987,
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.’
Mrs Thatcher’s words were a licence to ignore problems that could only be addressed by the State, the ‘sink’ housing estates spring directly from an abdication by Government agencies of responsibility for those who simply could not do the things she suggested, those trapped by the inarticulateness identified by Harry Eyres.
What is needed is not a further series of government interventions; these have failed; what is needed is is the creation of a capacity in people to have a voice of their own.