I was appalled by the looting that raged in our city streets recently. But, sadly, I was not surprised.
From my perch as head of education at the University of Birmingham, I’ve witnessed first-hand for many years as English culture has moved rapidly away from its Judeo-Christian foundations.
Beginning in 2007, I led a research project that examined attitudes toward virtue and civil society among almost 2,000 14 to 16-year-olds in one economically deprived, majority Muslim area of Birmingham.
What we discovered was that, with one notable demographic exception (Muslim teens), many students had little-to-no fidelity to national, religious or communal institutions and the values they embody.
Since the riots, many people have said the moral rot that brought on the violence exists throughout contemporary English culture. That may be true, but it’s worth looking at the two demographic groups that were most directly involved: poor whites and poor Afro-Caribbeans.
It is precisely these two groups who are the least happy and most pessimistic about their futures in the UK. They do not feel that they belong, or are welcomed, in civil society. They also feel less positive about the virtues of honesty, trustworthiness, courage and justice.
The poor white group in particular held few positive aspirations for their future. Not coincidentally, they are also less likely to have a meaningful relationship to religious belief.
In contrast, Muslim young people from these same areas were much clearer about the meaning and usage of the virtues. They recognised that they had certain duties to obey the law and some responsibility for the well-being of their neighbours.
The Muslim students were generally less affluent than their white and black peers, and they lived in much larger family units – two factors that might have put them at even more risk for dysfunction. Despite these additional challenges, however, their close, intact families and the active role of faith seem to make an enormous difference.
While our survey didn’t set out specifically to investigate the role of religion, students often made spontaneous reference to it when talking about character, showing that they thought it was important.
For the overwhelming majority of young people in England, the framework of religion hardly exists.
But so far, no clear secular alternative has emerged. Instead, an ethic of individualism and consumerism, which dictates that moral choices are entirely a matter of personal preference, has filled the vacuum. I believe the result is the disintegration of traditional morality.
The shock of the violence brought forth a salutary reaction from many quarters, including the recognition that the loss of public and private virtue is not just a problem for Britain’s underclass. This is undoubtedly true. The recent MPs’ expense scandal certainly highlighted the decadence of our political class.