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In Hilary Mantel's novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, there are many horrifying moments. But perhaps the most revealing comes early on at the National Assembly when the members want to frame a Declaration of the Rights of Man. Some say that a constitution should be written first, rights existing only thanks to laws. But, as Mantel writes, "Jurisprudence is such a dull subject, and liberty so exciting."

Britain is not quite in a 1789 state, not least because our rioters have too much, not too little, and express a greater interest in luxury goods than bread. We have already tried letting them eat cake, and it doesn't work. But I thought of this passage as the summer's lawlessness began and the authorities scrambled to get abreast of it.

Over the last few years the failure of our institutions has been something of a theme of this column. Though the attack had started beforehand, one by one in recent years they have been assaulted afresh and brought themselves low.

In 2008 our financial institutions lost what confidence they enjoyed from the general public. "Bankers" became a term newly synonymous not only with greed but the most reckless — and, crucially, unpunished — irresponsibility.

Then in 2009 Parliament debased itself with the expenses scandal. While nobody expected MPs to be saints, nevertheless they were not expected to behave so badly and so uniformly. Though the looters have only themselves to blame for their actions, it seems at least societally consistent that the principal objects of their desire — ridiculously outsized televisions — had also been coveted by Gerald Kaufman.

As I pointed out at the time, the unwillingness of MPs to accept responsibility for their own actions demonstrated a top-down failure in our society, their defence being, like that of so many of the looters, that, after all, everyone else was doing it.

Then the media — one of the most powerful, if accidental, British institutions — endured its own breakdown. Yet the phone-hacking scandal demonstrated not just the media's, but the country's systemic failure.

In 2003 Rebekah Brooks confirmed to a Parliamentary Committee that her newspaper's staff had paid — that is bribed — police officers. A criminal offence was admitted but nothing happened. Parliament did nothing. The Crown Prosecution Service did nothing. The police did nothing.

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Nathaniel Courthope
September 2nd, 2011
6:09 AM
There are many reasons for the institutional failures you correctly point to, though I think they all boil down to greed and the accompanying sense of entitlement that was at the heart of the banking collapse, the expenses scandals and of course the riots. One manifestation you haven't mentioned but which is the chief obstacle to reform is the widespread failure of accountability. Two disparate examples: MG Rover failed but the management who had acquired the company from BMW walked away with many millions in their pockets thanks to a scheme cooked up with the help of well known accountants. As they had put nothing of their own cash into the business there could hardly be a clearer example of immorality. Yet neither they nor the accountants were punished in any meaningful way and they got to keep the loot. Secondly, consider the calamitous capture of the marines by the Iranians. There was gross underperformance by: the mission commander for not having a lookout and not resisting capture; the ship commander for not ensuring helicopter cover at all times; the regional commander for not ensuring better tactics. All three should have lost their jobs at least; none did and the worst that happened to anyone was a new desk job.

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