Societies, like soup, need to be stirred from time to time. Britain has erupted into rioting and looting because of too much welfare, too little opportunity, too few jobs, too little education, but mostly because of a kind of social calcification.
While the old British class system, born of land aristocracy and later incorporating business-derived money, exerted downward pressure on all the levels, modern Britain, which has been forming since the end of World War II, is a more liberal place.
Aspiring Britons are no longer despised by other Britons by the way they speak, as George Bernard Shaw said. Upward mobility is easier than ever, though probably less so than in the United States where it is almost a constitutional right.
However, the new liberalism in business and the arts has been at odds with a different liberalism at play in government policies. It is the liberalism of providing for the needy. The result has been the growth of a new social order: the underclass.
The state, under both Labor and Conservative governments, has sought to save ever-larger numbers of people from all the agonies of life at the bottom. But instead of achieving this it has created a new citizen, tethered to the state in all aspects of life, including health and child care; job training instead of a job; unemployment income that can last a lifetime; plus money for having babies, and arguably money for not getting a job.
Where this liberalism has failed is the one thing that it is reasonable to ask of the state: to educate the children. Public education in Britain is as ramshackle and as fraught with problems as it is in America.
If you fall through the cracks in Britain kindly hands will comfort you, pay your rent, give you money, pretend to educate you and pretend to retrain you. They will also possibly trap you at the bottom, but they will certainly trap your children.
Life at the bottom is survivable in Britain — more so than most countries, including the United States. But it is corrosive and it has produced a culture of sloth, vulgarity, casual parenthood and celebrity adulation. The life is coarse and fueled by relentless television-viewing and boozing.
These are the people who have been rioting across Britain, producing television images not reminiscent of Britain but of the intifada on the West Bank: hooded youths stoning the police and torching cars and buildings.
What to do? Liberals will call for more of what has not worked: more social initiatives, more youth centers, more a job training and remedial education. Conservatives will call for harsher treatment: more better -armed police, longer prison sentences and talk about family and morals.
More difficult to address is why so many of what was the working class have fallen to the bottom, and why society continues to stratify.
First, there is the loss of the Empire. The British were always able to change their luck by going “out to the Empire.” At one time, young people could remake themselves in distant British lands, from Kenya to Burma or Canada to New Zealand. There were incentives not to stay put but to go forth. It was a great social safety valve.
The other loss was national service — even more important to the well-being of the body politic in Britain than in America. Lacking our social and geographic mobility, the draft provided skills and launched careers. Also for stratified Britain, it reminded people in one social strata about the existence of people in other strata.
A very distinguished musicologist, Bernard Jacobson, has always benefited as a writer by his superior touch-typing skills. He was taught these by the Royal Air Force, which quickly realized that this dreamer from Oxford should not be allowed near an aircraft.
John Adams, a management and public affairs savant in Washington, was serving with British forces in Korea when word came through the radio on a tank that Winston Churchill had won the election of 1951. Bravo! Adams cheered, but the rest of his squad booed. He looked at them with new eyes. They were all Brits fighting in a foreign land, but they were of different backgrounds.
Denis Nordin, popular here on the BBC radio program “My Word,” credited World War II for liberating young Jews — cockney accented Jews like himself — to have a career in the theater. Vidal Sassoon, the hairdresser and cosmetics mogul, said the same thing.
As the underclass of Britain, modern only in that they have cell phones, rampage, the question is what will stir the pot this time? What will bring the bottom to the top the next time? – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate