Leave those kids alone

Criminalising young people is counterproductive and creates lifelong offenders. Rather, we need a co

Where was law and order in the 2010 election? During the campaign, there were arguments about civil liberties, identity cards and immigration control. But the election was the first in over 30 years in which law and order barely figured. This is even more striking given that 2010 will go down as a political turning point.

In 1979, the Conservative Party made law and order central to its drive for power, capturing significant numbers of core Labour voters. In 1997, New Labour reversed the trick, overtaking the Tories on the right and distancing itself from Old Labour's law-challenging radicalism. Most of New Labour's effort went on the first half of its populist slogan "Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime". Perhaps 2010 will signal a welcome cooling of the law-and-order party-political arms race.

No serious analyst of law-and-order policies believes that either the welter of new legislation that has afflicted our criminal justice system or the locking up of increasing numbers of offenders has made us safer in our beds at night. There is general agreement that the time has come to roll back our heavy use of criminal justice interventions and stop talking up the potency of criminal law to solve our social ills.

On 30 March, just over a month before polling day, Iain Duncan Smith argued in a speech at the Attlee Foundation in London that we could not "arrest our way out of our problems". At the same event, by contrast, Chris Grayling promised "robust policing", but he was not heard
of for the rest of the campaign. Grayling may not get it, but most politicians now do. They privately agree with the Treasury that a grave
financial crisis should not go to waste.

The major cuts in public spending in the policy pipeline provide an opportunity for us to stop doing a few things we should never have done - chief among them criminalising and locking up so many children and young people, thereby grooming a new generation of long-term adult criminals from whose depredations we will all suffer.

The trend is clear. Even though the volume of crimes, including those for which young people are responsible, has fallen since the mid-1990s, by 2007 there were more than twice as many children in custody as at the beginning of the 1990s. The increase is not explained by a corresponding rise in serious crime by children. Events such as the murder of James Bulger in February 1993 or the torture of two boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire, in April 2009, are thankfully rare. In that sense, Britain is no more broken today than it was 20 years ago.

Paying the price

Nor should we get hung up about offensive, antisocial behaviour committed by young people. That may have got worse, but no one seriously believes that the problem is best solved by putting already disaffected and typically disadvantaged youths behind bars. At roughly £100,000 a year, this costs more than three times as much as sending a child to Eton, and the outcome is not an enhanced prospect of becoming prime minister, but typically a lifelong relationship with the revolving door of Pentonville. As the former Conservative home secretary David Waddington confessed, it is an expensive way of making bad people worse.

So, how to save taxpayers money and better protect us from being victimised? It is a good first step that the plan to build a 360-bed young offender institution (YOI) outside Leicester has been scrapped. The proposal was undesirable and unnecessary. The youth custody population of England and Wales has fallen in the past two years from 3,000 to roughly 2,200. The surplus capacity this creates should allow the Youth Justice Board, which commissions custodial places for under-18s, to avoid unsuitable establishments. Indeed, it should be thinking about a completely different residential model.

The new government should now also do the following. First, a new agency should be created, separate from the prison service, to manage all accommodation for young offenders - the local authority secure homes, the commercially run secure training centres and the YOIs. This would make for coherent national planning, which is at present lacking.

This new agency should consider piloting a community-oriented institution along the lines of the proposed Young Offender Academy investigated over the past three years by a working party with the Foyer Federation, the support agency for youngsters making the transition to adulthood. We must keep the secure homes for younger children provided by local authorities. They are expensive, but they provide the sort of one-to-one care needed by children who have done dreadful things but are often both neglected and disturbed. In addition, we must explore an alternative model to the big YOI, an outmoded tool that should have been consigned to the penal dustbin.

Most of the cost of youth custody should be transferred from central government to the local authorities from which the young people come. This proposition has been pondered indecisively in Whitehall for several years. It must now be done. It would be the best way to give an incentive to the local authorities to invest in crime-preventive community programmes (research shows that confidence in these programmes is critical in persuading sentencers to avoid the use of custody). If this happened, a question mark would hang over the continued need for the Youth Justice Board.

The thousands of young people locked up each year spend, on average, 14 weeks in custody. It is wrong that a high proportion of them are held far from home, and unsurprising that the overwhelming majority are reconvicted within 12 months of getting out. Preventing youth crime involves determining responsibility and fixing consequences. But it also involves promoting positive, law-abiding opportunities and working with families as well as individual offenders - not further dislocating already fragile relationships. None of these processes is best achieved by transporting teenage offenders to large, distant, prison-like institutions.

Too much too soon

Finally, the conviction on 24 May of two boys aged ten and 11 on a charge of attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl should lead the government to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of any child, either victim or offender, or society at large, that children as young as this undergo adversarial criminal justice proceedings. Such matters are, if necessary, better dealt with by the family courts and childcare proceedings.

Law-and-order services, which cost just under 6 per cent of overall public expenditure, are not going to be among the heaviest hit in the period 2011-2014. Policing, which claims the largest share of the pot, is too politically sensitive for that. But things are nonetheless going to be tough for front-line practitioners. There will be significant cuts. This makes it imperative that we shift the centre of expenditure gravity from that which is totemic to something that has a prospect of working

Rod Morgan was chairman of the Youth Justice Board from 2004-2007

Crime and punishment

Levels of youth crime have decreased overall since the early 1990s. However, during this time, there has been an increased use of custodial sentences for children and young people. In 1999, Home Office figures showed that while the level of detected youth crime had fallen by 16 per cent since 1992, custodial sentencing had more than doubled.

Tony Blair's establishment of the Youth Justice Board in 2000 continued this trend. While the government was keen to trumpet the success of its reform, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said that youth offending had barely changed, but more children had been criminalised or imprisoned. It is a vicious cycle: the same report found that reoffending rates were highest among those who had had a custodial sentence.

Recent years have brought a sharp decline in youth crime: a 10.2 per cent drop between 2005 and 2008. However, this figure fails to take account of more than 19,000 children and young people issued with penalty notices for disorder or antisocial behaviour orders. If such children were included, the 10.2 per cent drop would be nearly eliminated.

This points to a problem in the statistical analysis of youth crime, which is the changing definition of what constitutes a crime, and how harshly it is punished. Crime levels may be unchanged, but criminalisation is rising.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

Picture: Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas