The New Politics of Character

In August 2011, there was panic on the streets of London. Riots broke out in Tottenham, fueled in part by community anger about a police shooting. Other neighborhoods and then other English cities followed suit. The transfixing images of urban hordes looting storefronts and setting cars and buses ablaze played over and over again on television screens worldwide. When the police were finally able to tame the riots, the property damage was in the hundreds of millions of pounds, 3,000 Britons were in handcuffs, and five men were dead.

Political reactions to the saga followed predictable party lines. The left blamed the government’s austerity program and cuts in youth services, although very few cuts had in fact been made. The right viewed the disorder as evidence of simple immorality. Prime Minister David Cameron, reprising his pre-election theme of “broken Britain,” lamented the “slow-motion moral collapse” of society.

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