But what can we do about it? Long before the rioting, David Cameron spoke of remoralising British society, especially through building the moral character of young people in schools.
Yet his government has offered little beyond rhetoric. What is missing is a values-based policy that gives weight to his words.
What we need is to return real authority to parents and teachers, who have for too long been circumscribed by a culture that says children’s rights are more important than their responsibilities.
Morals might be reintroduced by an aggressive programme of character education. Schools are unavoidably moral places, yet very few English schools feature character education as a recognised subject. Instead, our schools embody their moral ethos through rules, rewards and punishments – dress codes, and the like.
This makes perverse sense given the inability to reach a consensus on moral standards in a pluralist, multicultural society. When a society lacks the confidence to proclaim right and wrong, and to expect young people to conform to those moral standards, the best it can manage is a kind of managerial liberalism.
But that approach, plainly, has failed. If we are to have any hope in saving England from the kind of disintegration the world saw, we have to recognise the radical nature of the challenge. The seeming collapse of English character is not about “them”; it’s about us. And it’s not only about us British.
There is a pretence in all contemporary Western democratic societies, including America’s, that individualism is a central, and even essential, virtue. In this context, people are free to make their own choices within a culture of so-called individual rights.
While these liberties are worth defending, if they are treated as absolute – that is, existing without fidelity to corresponding duties – they lead to the atomisation of society.
In the end, the challenge facing Britain’s leaders at every level is unprecedented: How do you restore strong moral values to a society that – its Muslim members excepted – more or less denies that there is any binding basis for them outside of personal sentiment and individual choice?
In 2009, Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, wrote that: “Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse have been deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still, small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away.”
We’ve replaced God with the all-seeing eye of CCTV. In the absence of internal restraints, we’ve turned to external ones – but they have failed us as we’ve failed ourselves. We may never resurrect God in England. But we must find a way to resurrect virtue.
* Prof James Arthur Head of School, Professor of Education and Civic Engagement University of Birmingham.