We’re talking about the possible abduction and murder of a two-year old boy. And even in the shock and bewilderment we can’t be left alone. We must endure the media ghouls, the politicians and the self-styled experts on human misbehaviour telling us why it happened and how seriously social order is in peril and that we should trust them to put things to rights.We must put up with John Major, forgetting that he promised to be the architect of a “nation at ease with itself’, advising us to understand criminals less and condemn them more. We must swallow hard Rees Mogg’s censure that juvenile crime has its roots in a failure to say our prayers. When we knew what had happened to James Bulger there was an orgy of self-questioning, of doubt and condemnation. But the ghouls and the MPs and the experts were absolutely certain that none of these could refer to them. They were blameless.
The killing of James Bulger was a grisly climax to a developing campaign about youth crime. What with the “joy riders" on the bleak estates of Oxford, Liverpool and Newcastle and the persistent burglars who are too young to be legally locked away there was a popular fear that we were about to submerge beneath a tidal wave of teenage thieves and thugs. So the media bellowed out indignation. on behalf of Mr and Mrs Average Briton. The behaviour experts earned a few pounds by writing articles explaining it all as the effect of lax parents and provocative TV programmes and video games. And the politicians all acted like parliamentary thugs in the hope that thereby they could thieve a bagful of votes.
At a time of understandably high emotion it may be difficult to cling to reality but it won’t go away. The popular conception about high levels of crime is often a matter of fashion. At one time Teddy Boys were in fashion; soon they were succeeded by the Mods and Rockers. More recently it was the football hooligans; then the “joy riders". But fashions can be decided by all manner of subjective—and delusional—influences. It can develop its own momentum— which is why the popular press falls over itself to colour and glamourise crime.
Meanwhile, throughout the spasms of modish hysteria, there have been quiet, persistent voices pointing out that the teens are the peak years for getting into trouble with the law and that this may be saying something important about what we really think of this social system. If capitalism can’t assure young people, with their vigour and optimism and lack of inhibition, of a stable future there must be something seriously wrong with it.
Rather than admit the unpleasant realities of the society they try to run, the politicians have been engaged in a sordid competition to bid up the stakes in the Law and Order game. Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke had some unpleasant things to say about young offenders while he promised to set up a series of secure establishments to lock them away. John Major declared a crusade against crime—as if it can be fought—with himself, presumably, on a white charger at its head. Desperate at the prospect of the Tories picking up all the votes on the issue, Labour's Tony Blair showed that he is no slouch at the business, calling on the government to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
None of the ministers drew attention to the inconvenient fact that the youngsters now coming before the courts—including the two boys charged with murdering James Bulger—have spent most, if not all, of their lives under Conservative government.The Tory party have allowed it to be thought that they alone can be trusted to deal with—in other words, to be tough on— crime.
In their sillier moments they have come close to claiming to be able to wipe it out altogether. But what does it say for them and for their policies that after 14 years of power they are in a panic because the problem is worse than ever and are saying that harsher responses are necessary? After all, if their policies had succeeded we might now be expecting courts to feel able to be more lenient about the few minor offences before them.
And in several infamous examples those children were subject, not to the training in citizenship which Clarke huffs and puffs about but to deliberate abuse, physical and sexual. It was often summed up by the professional criminal, once ruthless but new more reflective, who would say that, for him, Approved School was where it all began.
The same can be said about the Borstals, sentences to which were officially called “training". And the same, but even more so, can be said about the Detention Centres, whose “short, sharp shock" regime was so rapturously greeted by the punitive neurotics of the Tory Party.
The policy of the Detention Centres was based on the assumption that by bullying and repressing youngsters who had often been subjected to that kind of treatment all their lives anyway, it was possible to persuade them not to bully and repress others. They were doomed to failure although after being abandoned in the 1970s they were briefly revived by an embattled Willie Whitelaw before being quietly allowed to expire.
So what else is on offer, to repress, discipline or "treat" the young criminal? Well, there has been the predictable demand to bring back conscription, often from men who are stupid enough to be able to filter out the truth of their own memories of National Service. Conscription, they declare over their beer in the local British Legion, would instil respect for authority, discipline, order, cleanliness, short hair and sharply pressed trousers . . .
Leaving aside the fact that the armed forces are not famous for decorous, considerate and law-abiding behaviour, we should bear in mind that when peace-time conscription operated in this country it was often said to be responsible for crime. The post-war crime wave was widely explained as the response of school leavers, knowing that in a few years they would be forced into a mindless existence of square bashing and spit and polish, lacking any ambition other than to be the best burglar in the street.
If there is any evidence about cause and effect of crime it clearly contradicts the theory that harsh punishment persuades people to be law-abiding. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that capitalist society has a selective policy on what is lawful and what is not. Some theft and violence is not only allowed but actually esteemed and rewarded—as any investor should know, as any soldier should know. In such a social system it has to be expected that people will be confused about what is legal and what is outlawed—what is “right" and what is “wrong”.
In the sacred name of profit capitalism murders millions of people every year, in its wars, its famines, through its unnecessary disease. None of this is illegal. Meanwhile, the leaders of this historical horror concentrate on trying the impossible—making the system work without its inevitable problems.
Crime cannot be abolished, any more than the problems which capitalism must produce can be abolished—unless something is done about changing the basis of society. Through the hysteria generated by the death of poor little James Bulger, that is a central fact which must not be lost sight of.