It was impossible not to feel a thrill of pleasure. The newspapers were heralding Boris Johnson’s triumphant win over his socialist opponent Ken Livingstone as mayor of London — part of a nationwide sweep as Conservatives romped to power in local authorities across Britain, trouncing Labour in the local elections. Media commentators started to talk about the “May Day massacre” and the huge pressures now facing Gordon Brown’s Labour government.
To all Londoners who have had to put up with the antics of “Red Ken” these many years, it was a joy. We’ve had his appalling promotion of the homosexual agenda — he initiated a scheme for registration of same-sex unions in London as a gimmick before it became Labour government policy and now enshrined in the law of the land — his vocal support of extreme Islamicist campaigners, his spending of our money on a massive range of lunatic political crusades run by high-salaried cronies. To see him trounced was good.
London desperately needs some action to curb its rising crime rate, its loathsome cascades of litter, its messy graffiti, its gangs of menacing youth on tubes and buses. Boris Johnson — better known for his wit and intellect, his considerable writing skills, and his political acumen than for his administrative abilities — certainly has a job on his hands. So the conventional wisdom now is that he must settle down to tackling the real issues that confront this great city and see that something gets done about them.
But — and this is the main point, and an issue that is far, far bigger than the London elections — at the heart of the city’s social difficulties are problems that are not easily remedied by political means.
The biggest worry in the rising crime rate is the age of the criminals. Forget the traditional burglar with a swag of stolen goods over his shoulder. Children in their early teens — or younger — now run about with knives and get involved in killings. Gangs of thugs indulge in what is euphemistically called “happy slapping,” in which elderly people are beaten to a pulp and left to die while one of the youngsters in the gang records it all for fun on a mobile phone.
There’s an air of menace as summer arrives in modern Britain and the warm evenings bring sullen gatherings of youth into the shopping centers on Friday and Saturday nights. They shriek obscenities, drink, vomit. As the night draws on they get more violent; there are fights and blood and broken glass and wailing sirens and drunken children being rushed to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped.
Britain is a rich country; there are youth centers and sports facilities galore. There are pubs and clubs and a vast range of places to eat and dance and meet and mess about. There are restaurants and take-aways and halls and parks and all sorts of public entertainments. But what we lack is something more basic, something previous generations, even while enduring poverty or unemployment or war, took for granted — family life and the network of human bonds that civilize us.
“Haven’t you got homes to go to?” used to be the cry to wandering youth late at night. Today the answer might well be: Yes, each one has a choice of maybe two or three homes, but doesn’t feel a need to go to any of them. Mum and her current boyfriend, who is feared and loathed. Dad and his new wife, whose own children belong to a rival gang. Gran and her live-in lover, who is OK but a bore when drunk. Which of these homes exudes a welcome? Which exerts discipline, imposes restraints, demands commitment, offers unselfish love and lifelong bonds?
Successive governments — and not just socialist ones, although the years since the Labour win in 1997 have been by far the worst — have promoted gross forms of sex education that promote every lifestyle except male/female marriage, have allowed pornography to flourish, have pushed condoms and abortion on ever-younger teenage and pre-adolescent children, have made divorce easier and promoted cohabitation rather than matrimony. For years, social policies have denigrated the role of parents, removing their rights and undermining their status. For years, teachers have had their authority undermined, and children’s “rights” have been pushed at the expense of their real needs.
What can a newly elected mayor do about any of this? He has no role in creating policies in social welfare or education, much less matrimonial law, so even if he wanted to venture into those areas (and Johnson certainly doesn’t) he can’t. He is limited in what he can do about crime. Government policies have certainly made things worse by promoting 24-hour drinking and curbing the authority of the police to tackle violent youth. These are areas where a mayor might try to do something, but it will take a massive political fight and not necessarily produce results.
Britain used to be a byword for a society where courage and initiative, freedom of speech and incisive humour flourished in a climate of courtesy, social cohesion, and restraint. It’s now fashionable to say that we were all hopelessly buttoned-up, pompous, class-conscious, and constricted. Maybe. We did need to loosen up a bit (and, yes, I do recall some horrible meals endured in my youth when British cookery was world-renowned for its nastiness).
But in our great capital city now teeming with people from a mass of different cultures, in a nation that is money-rich but values-poor, we have got to find some fresh understanding of what makes human beings hold together and enables community life to flourish. London’s got problems.