[...] This combination of a peaceful national character and an accepted moral outlook on how we ought to behave produced (especially after the Second World War, when people had got used to being told what to do) a society of social cohesion and stability: the low point for crime in British history was 1953. This is the society into which, as a baby boomer, I was born. And it was one of the many dazzling advantages we enjoyed, along with plenty to eat, free health, free education, freedom of speech and ever-rising expectations.
As the Fifties became the Sixties, society became liberated and far less docile and there were rumbles, there was industrial unrest: Mods and Rockers fought on the beach at Brighton; students demonstrated against the Vietnam war. But somehow, although it provoked indignation from retired colonels, none of this really stepped outside the bounds of the culture.
I can remember when I first saw the cultural norms transgressed; it was on a Sunday evening in August 1976, at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival, which I had been covering as a young reporter for the Daily Mirror. The event ended in rioting. I had covered riots before, in Northern Ireland, but that evening I saw something new. It wasn't just people throwing rocks at the police. There were groups of young men on the street, openly brandishing knives and openly looking to rob. It was chilling. It took me some time to work out why it was different, but eventually I realised that it was the openness of their behaviour which was so startling. To anyone of my generation, it was unthinkable that you would behave so shamelessly, that you might strut about in the street with a knife. And it was clear that those people rioting had been socialised in a different way, so that the informal constraints on behaviour which had been such a key part of our culture had no effect on them whatsoever. Read more