The great historian Conrad Russell once wrote:
"In investigating causes, the first necessity is to match them with effects, and it therefore seems a logical priority to begin by trying to establish the effects for which causes must be found.
"If the effects are wrongly postulated, the causes will be wrong also.
"If we discuss causes without any investigation of effects, we are simply indulging in unverifiable speculation."
Conrad Russell, The Causes of the English Civil War (1990)
A great deal of the punditry, and the statements of politicians, since the riots of last week seem not to be based on any clear view of what is actually to be explained.
The socio-economic determinists will emphasise poverty and the "cuts". However, there will be little effort in setting out any direct lines of causation to what took place.
I happen to come from a working class/council estate/comprehensive school background, and I am instinctively averse to any easy link between socio-economic predicaments and unlawful behaviour. Indeed, most of the people who live on council estates, or are impoverished in other urban environments, are more likely to disproportionately suffer from lawlessness rather than indulge in it.
I cannot see how any socio-economic predicament is more or less likely to make one commit a criminal act in any given situation.
Of course, the horrifying poverty and lack of social mobility in many communities is quite real; but I deny that by itself it caused a single thing to be looted or damaged over the last week.
I would like to put forward an alternative point of view, in accordance with Russell's wise words above.
What needs to be explained is the lawlessness, not the socio-economic characteristics of those involved.
A number of people - between one and two thousand it seems - seem to have committed criminal acts last week in connection with the riots. These people, of course, are a minority of all those who committed criminal acts last week, but their criminality was concentrated and under the media glare.
People commit criminal acts for a number of reasons. For example, career criminals do it and see getting caught as an "occupational hazard"; and some people genuinely do not realise what they are doing is a criminal offence. However, these two explanations do not seem to fit the looters and rioters of last week.
Many people commit criminal acts because they believe they will not get caught: that they will "get away with it". Others think that it is acceptable to commit certain types of criminal act: they simply do not care if it is criminal. In both these cases, detection and prosecution always comes as a bit of a shock. It appears that a number of those "caught up" in the riots fit into these categories.
Why are some people likely not to take the law sufficiently seriously so not to regulate their actions so as to avoid criminal liability?
To my mind, the answer to that question is that in this country there is a general disregard for strict adherence to the law.
The journalist Peter Oborne comes close to this in his spirited attack last week on the morality of the political class.
But is not just the politicians.
For every dodgy expense ever claimed by an MP, there is some expense authorised by a newspaper executive for some unlawful intrusion to take place and some tabloid journalist who has paid some corrupt police officer.
And all this, in my view, goes beyond the political, media, and law enforcement classes: people will break the law if they think they can get away with it or think it is "acceptable", from defying speeding limits to dropping litter.
There is a general buzz of lawless behaviour throughout society.
If this is the case, then the riots must be explained in part by a lack of respect for the law for those involved. The riots then provided a sudden and unexpected opportunity for lawless behaviour: a window of opportunity, as it were.
(There is an old joke that some people need a reason for sex, whilst others just need an opportunity. The same surely goes for unlawful behaviour.)
And so if the problem is in part a lack of respect for the law, and a casual tolerance for unlawful behaviour, then I would suggest that the answer is not necessarily more laws and excessive penalties. Although this would have the misconceived attraction of a "crack-down" it would also tend to make the law and justice system seem arbitrary and illiberal.
If a cause of unlawful behaviour is that some people do not respect the law, then part of the answer is to endorse and assert the principles of the rule of law, proportionality, and due process, and to show people that the law is worthy of respect.
Otherwise, we are only making it worse for ourselves.
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