Twilight of the Institutions

By skepticlawyer

As I pointed out on Legal Eagle’s thread on this issue, I think it’s very important that we take violent crime more seriously than fraud or non violent property crime. Violence does things to people and communities that fraud does not, and eliding this difference or wishing it away will lead us to a situation where we worry more about robbing the King’s treasure chest than we do about the personal safety of his subjects.

However, the violence aside, there is no doubt that we are witnessing a ‘twilight of the institutions’ in the UK, as so many things involved in British governance generally and England specifically are shown to be wanting. Our society isn’t just bent at the bottom, it’s bent at the top and all through the middle, as this fine piece by Peter Oborne in The Daily Telegraph makes clear:

But there was also something very phony and hypocritical about all the shock and outrage expressed in parliament. MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them.

I cannot accept that this is the case. Indeed, I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.

It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights. So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a dinner party in a large house in west London. A security guard prowled along the street outside, and there was much talk of the “north-south divide”, which I took literally for a while until I realised that my hosts were facetiously referring to the difference between those who lived north and south of Kensington High Street.

Most of the people in this very expensive street were every bit as deracinated and cut off from the rest of Britain as the young, unemployed men and women who have caused such terrible damage over the last few days. For them, the repellent Financial Times magazine How to Spend It is a bible. I’d guess that few of them bother to pay British tax if they can avoid it, and that fewer still feel the sense of obligation to society that only a few decades ago came naturally to the wealthy and better off.

Of course, some necessary points need to be made. Glasgow, Dundee and Fife are much poorer than anywhere in London or the Midlands (some dramatic statistics on the poverty of Glasgow are available here), so there was some sting to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s complaints that these were ‘England Riots’, not ‘UK Riots’. Chastened by his words and his observation that Scotland is ‘a different society’, the BBC changed its labelling. There were no riots in Scotland, and Scotland lent 250 police officers from Edinburgh and Glasgow to help protect Northern England from harm.

So the riots became ‘England Riots’.

Which of course means that poverty as an explanation for the riots is also meaningless, because the benefits system is common to all of Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Island). We are not dealing with poverty, but with something else, and all the earnest explanations being offered from both left and right are also probably meaningless. The closest I have come to an explanation is that offered by Peter Oborne in the linked piece, and in some of the astute comments on the riots offered on this blog: the relevant threads are available here and here.

It also important to remember that people can riot for utterly petty reasons (who here knows the story of England’s Gordon Riots?) or for no reason at all. Many of the people currently going through legal processes in all night courts set up to mimic the ancient Roman praetorian jurisdiction or the New York ‘night courts’ stole purely because they could, because it was thrilling, and because they had spotted the ‘con’ that underlies most policing and part of the rule of law. This ‘con’ was movingly described by the Roman jurist Ulpian to his concubine after she complained about having to battle through the streets of Rome with their daughter via massed Praetorian Guardsmen and vigili urbani (fire and emergency services) during the emperor’s birthday celebrations.

As a woman with a young child, Roman civilian police or MPs were not allowed to touch her or ‘move her along’; she could only be politely asked ‘madam, could you please step aside for me?’. She did so, but after the 100th request, she was at the end of her tether — long before she reached her partner’s house.

‘My dear,’ wrote Ulpian, clearly apologetic, ‘civil order depends on a confidence trick. If people ever realised how many they are, and how few are the Guardsmen and Urban Cohorts, there would be no law and order at all. Law and order only exists because the citizenry believes it ought to exist’.

The ‘Peelermen‘ of London (now the Metropolitan Police) depend on the same confidence trick as Ulpian’s Praetorian Guardsmen and vigiles (Ulpian was later made Praetorian Prefect). They are very few, but from time to time need to appear ubiquitous. And we have to believe in the same rule of law as they do, lest civilisation collapse. In England last week, we lost that belief, and it was terrifying, but the belief in order and good order has been waning for some time at all levels of society, as Oborne’s piece makes clear.

Perhaps our analysis ought to start with Ulpian and Peel, and not with poverty. To start it with poverty traduces Scotland’s poor and pretends that there is nothing much else awry.

The problems, I think, run deeper than that.

UPDATE: Lorenzo has collated some excellent social science research on rioting and why it happens. One of the strongest links is between austerity measures (‘cuts’) and rioting, which could mean that England is in for more — most of the Coalition cuts haven’t yet come on stream. So score one against the right. The other most powerful finding is that ethnic diversity contributes to civil disorder (which may help explain why Scotland, which is far less diverse, didn’t riot, although that doesn’t account for Scotland’s long history of sectarianism). So score one against the left.

Interesting times.

20 Comments

  1. Chris Bond
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    John [email protected]:

    … there is no getting away from the fact that Blair’s government was very, very bad …

    Granted but for myself that raises a serious problem. How many elections did he win? What is happening that in a democracy such ineptitude can be continually rewarded?

    What is happening in this great Mother of Parliaments, John, is a first past the post (FPTP) voting system, combining with large cities with higher-than-average proportions of people drawing benefits and therefore more likely to vote Labour, together with ‘block votes’ from Wales and Scotland which were Labour heartlands (at least Scotland was until May 2011’s stunning victory by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party – the SNP)… Anyway, see below, ye people of Oz, and truly boggle!

    [ I have extracted the 1997, 2001 and 2005 results from the Parliamentary records, see e.g. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp2005/rp05-033.pdf
    The 2010 results don’t yet seem to have been compiled so I had to rely on the BBC’s summary for 2010.
    And in each case, to make life simpler for myself, I did not count the seats for the ‘others’… in each case the total number of seats contested was about 650-660.

    1997 was the year when Blair won with a landslide – yes, he got two thirds of the seats with 43.2% of the vote, which was itself 71.5% of those eligible to vote. And so on, you can see the picture yourself. At least you will if the table columns line up, drat! ]

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    1997: turn-out: 71.5% “is the lowest national level of turnout since 1935.”
    Party Lab Con Lib-Dem
    UK Seats 418 165 46 total 629 (the 3 main parties only
    UK Seats % 66.5% 26.2% 7.3% (of those that went to the 3 main parties only)
    UK Votes % 43.2% 30.7% 16.8%
    Scotland: 56 0 10 SNP 6
    Wales: 34 0 2

    2001: turn-out: 59.4% “the lowest recorded since 1918”
    Party Lab Con Lib-Dem
    UK Seats 412 166 52 630 (the 3 main parties only)
    UK Seats % 65.4% 26.3% 8.3% (of those that went to the 3 main parties only)
    UK Votes % 40.7% 31.7% 18.3%
    Scotland: 55 1 10 SNP 5
    Wales: 34 0 2

    2005: turn-out: 61.4% (source: – similarly for 1997 and 2001 results)
    Party Lab Con Lib-Dem
    UK Seats 355 198 62 615 (the 3 main parties only)
    UK Seats % 57.7% 32.2% 10.1% (of those that went to the 3 main parties only)
    UK Votes % 35.2% 32.4% 22.0%
    Scotland: 40 1 11 SNP 6 **
    Wales: 29 3 4
    ** “The 2005 General Election was contested on new boundaries in Scotland, which now has 59 seats rather than 72 at Westminster.”

    2010: turn-out: 65.1% (BBC)
    Party Lab Con Lib-Dem
    UK Seats 258 307 57 622 (the 3 main parties only)
    UK Seats % 41.5% 49.4% 9.2% (of those that went to the 3 main parties only)
    UK Votes % 35.2% 32.4% 22.0%
    Scotland: 41 1 11 SNP 6
    Wales: 26 8 3

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The really sad thing for Britain is that Cameron is not at all impressive. Not yet a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire but give him enough time.

    I couldn’t agree more. [Sighs, holds head in hands]

  2. Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    Obviously, and we can thank those pesky do-gooder Greenies and interfering Big Government regulators for that.

    Your history is way out, Chernobyl was a 1950s design even if commissioined in 1977. There is a Great Green Mythology that environmental protection only occurred due to the Greens. Nonsense, environmental protection and management was already improving way before the modern Green political parties, or even the proceeding Environmentalist movement got started. Once people reach a certain level of income, then environmental amenity starts climbing up the policy preference hierarchy (see London smogs, Ohio river, etc).

    As for regulation in general, the problem is the fact that it is needed for some things gets turned into way over-confidence in what it can do.

    As for surveys, well yes, as I intimated. But they probably provide some indication of rankings. (I.e. Japanese tend to have more angst on such things than Brits who tend to have more angst than Aussies.)

  3. Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Chris, compiling that data must have been really dispiriting. But yes, not good.

    Compulsory voting on a Saturday during summer is looking better and better all the time.

    Maybe we can teach the Brits how to run a sausage-sizzle?

    [Just on Lorenzo’s point about how much a country’s GDP per capita has to be before environmental protection starts to matter, I addressed the issue here.]

  4. Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    maybe it’s the lack of any decent options which allowed them to win? I feel like that with Australia. I don’t like any of the political options at the moment, and it’s a question of who I hate less. Very disappointed.

    Oh yeah. I’ve been voting independent or where possible LDP for a long time. What we have in modern politics is rhetoric taking precedence over argument. On political blogs this is often obvious. I spend some time on science blogs and the mode of discussion is typically much different. On those forums I receive much more positive than negative comment, this being a reflection of how people choose to respond rather than my cognitive skills. There you can’t invoke some general rant about how X holds a general view therefore is nuts or drift off into some argument about the generic problems with the views of X. You are typically much more confined to address the specific issues at hand. The same is true of legal argument, you first have to get the evidence clear and then make your arguments. I think one of the principle problems in modern political debate is that there is no clearly defined epistemology.

    Or maybe it’s that the spin did work, for a time? I remember when Blair won, people were going on like it was going to be a whole new world. Some journo was raving about his “exquisite physical beauty” (yer wot?). But that doesn’t explain term after term.

    In behaviorism there is the concept “extinction”. It refers to when the organism stops responding to the stimulus. Yesterday I was talking to the owner of a web design company. He commented that the focus these days is on “information management”, that advertising is proving less efficacious because people are being bombarded with it and switching off. The trend is slow but it does offer some hope for the quality of political debate.

    I think also that voting is a bit like barracking for a football team for many. Yeah, your team may be down and pretty cruddy at the moment, but you still vote for them because their heart’s in the right place and well, you can’t vote for the other team.

    Which touches on my point above about general positions. Politics has always contained a strong amount of tribalism. That too is waning. People like yourself and SL are evidence of that. Again though, the trend is slow.

  5. Chris Bond
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]:

    But they probably provide some indication of rankings. (I.e. Japanese tend to have more angst on such things than Brits who tend to have more angst than Aussies.)

    Or, they merely indicate how extremely crowded Japan is, and how crowded Britain is, and how relatively uncrowded Australia is… ? No, I don’t mean that exclusively, but the average distance between you and your neighbour must make a difference.

    [email protected]:
    Yes, it did take a while, but no-one spotted the copy/paste error in the 2010 results… the shares of the vote were not identical to those in 2005!
    No indeed, the seats and shares went:
    Party Lab Con Lib-Dem
    UK Seats % 41.5% 49.4% 9.2%
    UK Votes % 29.0% 36.1% 23.0% (of those that went to the 3 main parties only)
    – which was why, with only ~29% of the votes, it was ludicrous in the days immediately after the election, watching Brown saying he’d stay on as no one party had won an outright majority (of seats).
    On the good side, the Con-Dem coalition does have well over 50% of the votes between them…
    on the bad side, no-one voted for Con-Dem policies… 🙁

    As you say, SL, compulsory voting on Saturdays would likely be a good improvement …
    [ In the 2010 general election the British public also got to vote in a referendum to change from FPTP to the Additional Vote (AV) system of voting – a preferential system where the voter has the chance to rank the candidates in order of preference. (Oz voters might recognise this.)
    The voter puts a ‘1’ by their first choice a ‘2’ by their second choice, and so on, until they no longer wish to express any further preferences or run out of candidates.
    Candidates are elected outright if they gain more than half of the first preference votes. If not, the candidate who lost (the one with least first preferences) is eliminated and their votes are redistributed according to the second (or next available) preference marked on the ballot paper. This process continues until one candidate has half of the votes and is elected.
    The referendum produced a definitive no vote against AV. ]

  6. Nick Ferrett
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we can teach the Brits how to run a sausage-sizzle?

    Actually that’s a classic offence against the electoral laws. There’s a case about it somewhere. It constitutes giving a benefit in an attempt to influence electoral behaviour.

  7. Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    That is the problem with expecting corporations to regulate their own behavior.

    Which is why the common law came up with torts. Corporations being medieval in origins, and all.

    Folk were wrestling with such issues, and even environmental damage issues, in the medieval period. Those “no poaching king’s deer” rules that people boo and hiss about in the Robin Hood stories and films was an environmental protection provision. A very hierarchical solution, of course, but still a device to stop deer being hunted out.

  8. Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Actually, torts had a wider origin, but you get the point.

  9. Mel
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo @102:

    ” There is a Great Green Mythology that environmental protection only occurred due to the Greens. Nonsense, environmental protection and management was already improving way before the modern Green political parties, or even the proceeding Environmentalist movement got started.”

    Even the dumbest beast usually knows better than to shit in its own nest. The myth you refer to exists only in your head. Events like the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring did indeed precipitate improved environment protection on a major scale, although in recent years the right wing swift boaters have confected the “Rachel Carson is worse than Stalin meme” in respect of DDT in an effort to distort tghe truth.

    But generally speaking, you are dishonest on matters concerning the environment, for example your bizarre lie, possibly sourced from the whacko Jo Nova, that James Hansen once believed in global cooling.

    It is also worth remembering that democratic and capitalist Japan has only a very weak environmental movement, the upshot being that a nuclear power plant was deliberately built in an area that was known to be prone to the double whammy of earthquakes and tsunamis. Several brave Japanese scientists lost their careers because they spoke about this stupidity, but unfortunately there was no environment movement to pick up the issue and start agitating.

  10. Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Get the biggest fucking screen you ever saw
    And multiply its feeding times

    Soundproof your world, and always record
    Train dogs to rip the balls off strangers

    Now playing in over 160 countries worldwide:
    The Third World Armageddon Bonaza

    Coming soon at your local Brutal Architecture

    That’s all I’ve got.

  11. Scott
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    AGW isn’t in the list of great causes. That’s a move forward.

  12. Posted August 17, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Nothing you said in rebuttal about environmental protection actually contradicts anything I said: that environmental protection improved prior to the Greens does not entail that environmentalism and the Green movement have not had any effect.

    Besides, you were the one citing Greens as being part of the reason why Chernobyl-style reactors would not be built in the West, I was just responding to your claim.

  13. Mel
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo:

    “Besides, you were the one citing Greens as being …”

    I said Greenies, not Greens.

  14. Posted August 18, 2011 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    [email protected] A distinction without a difference.

    Historian James Heartfield has some musings on the breakdown of connections between effort and reward, though whether that distinguishes between England and Scotland is a question.

    SL: on Scottish sectarianism, does it extend to the police? If the police force is both Prot and Papist, that would militate against the sort of destructive law-and-order dynamics that led to the riots. That is, if the sectarianism is a sort of “barracking” in an overall law-and-order structure that is seen to operating for both sides, then one would get less of the general alienation-from-order that encourages rioting.

  15. Posted August 18, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    SL: on Scottish sectarianism, does it extend to the police? If the police force is both Prot and Papist, that would militate against the sort of destructive law-and-order dynamics that led to the riots. That is, if the sectarianism is a sort of “barracking” in an overall law-and-order structure that is seen to operating for both sides, then one would get less of the general alienation-from-order that encourages rioting.

    No, it’s not — because the police are recruited from all over Scotland and then sent everywhere; they don’t necessarily get to stay in the big cities (typically Glasgow, where the sectarianism problem is at its worst).

    That said, the sectarianism issue is still large and lively and keeps Alex Salmond busy — as this situation reveals (very recent):

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-14105881

    I had been working in Scotland for the grand total of 2 weeks when I saw an ‘Apprentice Boys’ marching band making its way out of the Meadows waving ‘Red Hand of Ulster’ flags and playing ‘We are the Billy Boys‘. It was a bit shocking, I have to say.

  16. Posted August 18, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    [email protected] The police response in your link of “let’s folk together and talking” is the language of it being a general problem–not a specific problem group–to be tackled by collective community action. Which does imply more the “barracking” model than the “them-and-us alienation” model.

  17. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Historian James Heartfield has some very apposite observations on poor policing, the breakdown of the effort-and-reward system and similar directly germane to the concerns of this post.

  18. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Urban geographer Noel Kotkin worries that wider global trends may be at work.

  19. Posted August 21, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Glasgow, where the sectarianism problem is at its worst.

    🙂

    Ut’s tradition lassie. Ut’s always bin shite.

One Trackback

  1. By 38 South » Doom and Doom or Chancing your Arm on August 18, 2011 at 9:33 am

    […] and should provide us with some lesson learned about urban as well as political elites.  http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2011/08/13/twilight-of-the-institutions/ A truly conservative view (as against the half assed David Cameron conservative view) by Peter […]

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