In fact, the politics of the Sixties were just a late incarnation of an 18th-century philosophy. We have Jean-Jacques Rousseau to thank for the basic principle that men are born good and will only behave badly if they are corrupted by authority and repressive institutions: that we need only liberate them from those false limitations and their natural moral instincts will come to the fore.
So hugely influential was this view in education and social policy that it almost succeeded in extinguishing the truths that arise from experience: people (especially young ones) will behave badly just because they can, because no one is stopping them, or has ever inculcated in them the conscientious discipline that would make them stop themselves.
The capacity for self-control, and the willingness to suppress one’s innate selfishness or cruelty, is something that adults must consciously instil in children and reinforce in other adults by their attitudes to them. The indispensable tools of social stigma and moral judgment that communities used to have at their disposal for this purpose have been stripped away, and the result – the fearless defiance of helpless authority – is what we saw in its terrifying logical conclusion on the streets. That is what real people know: that they were right all along.
So everybody agrees that this is – or could be – a turning point. The criminal justice system, which had fallen into public disrepute in recent years, due to its apparent belief that society is to blame for the acts of criminals, has been rehabilitating itself in the public mind with the “draconian” sentences it is handing down. If you think that rioters are getting tough treatment from the courts, you should hear what my newsagent would like to do to them. Real people know what “deterrence” means, even if they do not use the word.