17/08/2011 07:23 BST | Updated 17/10/2011 06:12 BST

Starkey's Strangely Refreshing, Ill-conceived Rubbish

As a history undergraduate, I knew David Starkey for his iconoclastic work on Thomas Cromwell's role in the court of Henry VIII. He was outspoken then, too - turning on his mentor, the venerable professor GR Elton. Everyone likes opinionated people, as it makes for good debate. I've seen enough 'debates' of like-minded, non-committal opinion to find his outburst on Newsnight strangely refreshing. It was ill-conceived rubbish of course, but one only gets a clearer impression of the truth when it is forced to collide with rubbish.

Yet there was something in Starkey's argument that does merit consideration. Underneath the Disgusted-of-Tumbridge-Wells rant about 'white becoming black', and 'black culture' being at blame - he was correct to point to a sub-culture in which glamourised violence and lack of respect for other people are considered the norm. Where breaking all the rules is a badge of honour. It was uncomfortable to hear precisely because Starkey struck serendipitous truth.

But Starkey omitted the essential rejoinder: why has this sub-culture become the norm among certain groups. It is certainly not a 'black' thing, a 'white become black' thing, or any other colour thing. And it is certainly not some new and frightening plague that has just arrived on our shores from Compton carried by Dr Dre. Anthropological and social psychology has long shown that groups of (especially) young men have informal 'codes of honour' and internalised rules by which they operate. Internal codes of honour are often connected to the notion of disengagement. Individuals who do not fit in socially adopt a strategy of disengagement and develop subcultures that provide an alternative route to self-esteem. Indeed, studies of street gangs show that when young men cannot take pride in a prestigious job or a nice house, their reputation on the street is their only claim to status. Simply put, if you feel yourself a loser in the game of life, and you believe the rules are rigged against you, it is easier to drop out.

So yes, we do need to reckon with a disruptive, corrosive sub-culture, and its immediate manifestations. And liberals must not shy away from that task, because it offends our sentiments (easier said than done - but the diagnosis that tough love parenting and discipline is surely correct). But nor should we forget what might be driving it.