'Youth violence is not about race'

We are failing miserably to provide Britain's teenage boys with meaningful occupations, worthy role

I had not wept in an advice surgery until a few weeks ago, when a distraught mother and father came to see me after learning that their teenage daughter had been subjected to the most brutal assault I have ever heard about. A group of young men had subjected this girl to a violent sexual attack, first raping her, then pouring acid over her body.

It seems futile to try to rationalise this act. How can such disregard for humanity be explained? Almost certainly it cannot. Yet there is something that links this horrifying example of male aggression with so much of the violence that society has witnessed this past year. We are not just seeing young people attack one another on Britain's streets; the common theme is that it is predominantly young men who are doing so. This may be a statement of the obvious, but it is one that we cannot ignore. Had this stream of violence been perpetrated almost exclusively by young women, gender would rightly have been invoked as one of the factors. The same must be done in relation to young men.

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time. In classrooms, boys are being outperformed consistently by girls. Recent results show that girls are overtaking boys by the age of 14, and by 18 are far more likely to achieve an A or B grade at A-level than boys. In adolescence, too many young men develop unhealthy attitudes towards sex, money and violence. In adult life, three-quarters of all suicides are men. The prison population is overwhelmingly male - indeed, men comprise almost 95 per cent of those in custody, and this number continues to increase compared to women. Boys, young men and grown men are struggling to find their place in society. It is time to ask ourselves why.

In recent weeks, politicians have gestured towards this issue. When David Cameron raised the responsibility of some fathers in the black community, he covered no new ground. We know that loving parents and male role models matter. We know that 59 per cent of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. But I winced as another round of banner headlines tarred every father in the black community with the same brush. And, like others, my reaction was that more back-to-basics speeches won't get us very far. The questions that need to be answered for children of all races and social backgrounds are: what can we do when there is no father in a young man's life? And how can society nurture the development and socialisation of young men before a culture of violence robs them of their futures?

Gang culture

The discussion about fatherhood needs to be seen in a wider context: the place of masculinity in modern societies. Because many young men who carry knives or guns do so not because they hope to use them, or even because they fear they might need to. They carry them as symbols of status and power. The issue is one of self-image. In the warped world of gang culture, carrying a weapon has come to be associated with being a man. Rather than being seen as a risk, the knife confers "respect". Understanding the roots of this must be at the heart of any realistic strategy to put an end to the violence.

The reasons are many. Some of the old images and expressions of masculinity are disappearing from society. Most obviously, the relationship between men and their work has undergone a revolution. When coalminers marched against the closure of the pits they were worried for their jobs, but also for their identity and way of life. A model of work built on physical endeavour is slowly being replaced by an emphasis on intellectual and emotional labour. Women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, displacing men as the principal earners for the first time. Britain is becoming richer and fairer because of these developments, but is also experiencing a big challenge to many traditional notions of masculinity.

In society, the fetishisation of money and the growth of consumerism add new pressures. In a "bling" culture, criminality easily becomes a short cut to symbols of wealth and power that will otherwise take years of hard work to achieve. Inequality plays its part, as young men from poor backgrounds feel they have the least to lose. Why, one boy asked me, was I worried about his grades at school, when he might not live long enough to get a job? This is the world of "get rich or die trying".

In peer groups, interactions between young men in groups are so often based around conflict. Too many boys never learn how to relate positively to other boys, let alone girls. And it starts early. Men make up 44 per cent of secondary school teachers, but fewer than two in ten primary school teachers are men. When I look at my own childhood, I realise that although I grew up without a father, I did have a very responsible elder brother, a local priest, teachers, uncles and youth workers able to fulfil that role. Masculinity is largely made up of learned behaviour and without a model of that behaviour emphasising an ability to express emotions, young boys have to look elsewhere to make what mark they can. Violence - or at least the power to inflict it - becomes a displacement activity. An aggressive street culture replaces success in other spheres of life as an expression of masculinity. Young men become attached to gangs, which reinforce this subculture, rather than families or workplaces, which work against it.

And, in this post-Thatcherite generation more than any other, young men struggle to control their own emotions. An inability to delay gratification - whether with food, alcohol, money or sex - is becoming a hallmark of our age, reinforced by advertising and media (by the age of ten, the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names). But while materialism and a consumer culture cannot be wished away, its impact on children can be restricted. The centre-left must govern markets in the public interest and it is right to look at advertising and its impact on young people.

Family support

There is a danger that those who cannot discipline their own lifestyles and learning will lose out in future educational success. Yet these things can be learned when young people are given the right structures, support and opportunities. Government and society need to recognise that the most precious resource in this battle is not money, but people's time.

We need to support parents enabling them to spend more time with their children, well beyond maternity and paternity leave. How are we helping families during those tricky times of transition from primary to secondary school, and through later teenage years? While there may be young men on estates missing fathers who left them, there are also children in Middle Britain whose parents become strangers in a culture of long working hours. Where there are no fathers, single mothers should be supported, not demonised. As someone who grew up in a single-parent household, I understand how difficult it can be for a single mother to raise an income and a family at the same time.

While the state must provide financial support, the community must provide male role models for young men to learn from. Corporations should be encouraged to offer mentors to young men, not just sign cheques. One of the best projects I have seen is the City Gateway youth inclusion project in Tower Hamlets, a borough in which almost a quarter of people are deemed to have skills too low for business and where one in five 18- to 25-year-olds claims unemployment benefit, although there are two jobs for every person. The project is run by an Oxbridge graduate who could be earning vastly more in the City, but instead brings volunteers from some of the biggest banks to help develop the skills and job-readiness of young people. We need to find ways to make sure such brilliant projects are more than one-off success stories.

In the US, federal and state governments have used incentives to encourage firms to invest in the inner city. In Kent County in Michigan, a state blighted by some of the worst urban poverty in America, schemes help local businesses offer discounts to people who volunteer as mentors. The Clinton Foundation was established in Harlem as a symbol of solidarity with that area, and in inner-city DC, the Washington Post funds and supports job training for low-income residents.

British workers in the public sector need to be given similar opportunities to become actively involved. Kent County Council, for example, gives its staff two days off every year to engage in voluntary or community activity. We need to decide how we can do this on a much bigger scale.

Strong values

There are other ways we can do more to support the personal development of young men. Addressing youth culture issues must move beyond giving young people "something to do". Young men need something purposeful to do, so that they learn to share, co-operate and produce, not just consume. Youth services, too often an afterthought in the past, must be taken seriously at a local level - whether that is through music, drama or sporting activities such as boxing clubs.

The National Lottery should start delivering projects that are more than the sum of their parts, such as new civic institutions on the scale of the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade, which are grounded in strong values and part of a wider social movement. A national civic service to benefit young people on a personal level and society as a whole is widely supported, but now needs someone to grasp the nettle of compulsion. I am passionate about a universal entitlement to apprenticeships for many of the same reasons. This is about more than learning a skill: the value of apprenticeships is that they establish the routine, structure and contact between generations so often missing.

This list will grow longer and others will add to it, but the crucial point is this: a resilient economy cannot substitute for a good society. And providing young men with the love and opportunities for personal development they need cannot be left to the accident of birth or the whim of charity.

Politicians who grew up enjoying structure, consistency, responsible male role models and an abundance of opportunities for education and enrichment need to do more than lecture others when they reach adult life. The community must play a role in providing those essential ingredients where they are lacking. This takes more than a vague recognition of "society"; it requires an active state. These are ways in which we can act as progressives - and act we must.

Boys under pressure

Research by Adam Lewitt

  • 97% of juvenile offenders aged 15-17 are boys
  • 13% of boys aged 11-15 suffer from a mental disorder, compared with 10% of girls
  • 76% of boys aged 11 achieve government-set literacy levels (85% of girls do)
  • 57% of boys achieved A-C grade GCSEs in 2007, compared with 66% of girls
  • 75% of all suicides occur among young men aged 15-34. Suicide is the second most common way for a male aged 15-34 to die
  • 70%+ of males aged under 18 who are charged for one offence go on to commit further crimes
  • 9 out of 10 gang members are male

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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The English Revolt

Brexit, Euroscepticism and the future of the United Kingdom.

English voters have led – some would say forced – the United Kingdom towards exit from the European Union. Was this an English revolt, the result of an ­upsurge over decades of a more assertive, perhaps resentful, sense of English identity? At one level, clearly so. Surveys indicate that individuals who most often describe themselves as “English”, and regions where this is common, were more inclined to vote Leave on 23 June. Some of these are poorer regions where marginalised people think that their voices are more likely to be heard in a national democracy than in an international trading bloc, and for whom patriotism is a source of self-respect. But it would only make sense to regard Leave as essentially an English reaction if discontent with the EU were confined to England, or specifically linked with feelings of Englishness.

In fact, negative opinions about the EU, and especially about its economic policy, are now more widespread in other countries than they are in England. Polls by the Pew Research Centre last month showed that disapproval of the EU was as high in Germany and the Netherlands as in Britain, and higher in France, Greece and Spain. Though aggravated by the 2007-2008 crash and enforced policies of austerity, a decline in support was clear earlier. France’s referendum of May 2005 gave a 55 per cent No to the proposed EU constitution after thorough debate, and a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.

Going far beyond the atavistic and incoherent English revolt that some think they discern, our referendum result is partly a consequence of transnational political phenomena across the democratic world: the disaffection of citizens from conventional politics, shown by falling turnouts for elections, shrinking party membership and the rise of new, sometimes extreme political movements; as well as the simultaneous detachment of a professional political class from civil society, and its consequent retreat into a closed world of institutions.

The EU embodies these phenomena in uniquely acute form. In several cases its central bodies have opposed – or, if one prefers, have been forced to deny – democratically expressed wishes. In Greece and Italy, the EU has enforced changes of government and policy, and in Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands it has pressed countries to ignore or reverse popular referendums. Its own representative body, the European Parliament, has gained neither power nor legitimacy. Crucial decisions are taken in secret, making the EU a hiding place for beleaguered politicians as well as a source of lavish financial reward for insiders. In the words of the historian John Gillingham, Europe is now being governed by neither its peoples nor its ideals, but by a bank board. This is not the “superstate” of Eurosceptic mythology. Though it drains power and legitimacy away from national governments, it is incapable of exercising power effectively itself, whether to cope with short-term emergencies such as an inflow of refugees, or to solve chronic failings such as the creation of mass unemployment in southern Europe. The result is paralysis, the inability either to extricate itself from failing institutions or to make them work.

If popular discontent with the EU continues to increase (and it is hard to see how it could not) sooner or later there will be some unmanageable political or social crisis. The response of too many supporters of the EU is to screw the lid down tighter, including now by promising to make life difficult for the United Kingdom, pour décourager les autres. This is the organisation – unpopular, unaccountable, secretive, often corrupt, and economically failing – from which our decision to depart apparently causes people to weep in the streets.

***

Why this decision? Why in Britain? The simplest and perhaps the best answer is that we have had a referendum. If France, Greece, Italy and some other countries had been given the same choice, they might well have made the same decision. But of course they have not been and will not be given such a choice, barring severe political crisis. This is most obviously because countries that have adopted the euro – even those such as Greece, for which the IMF has predicted high unemployment at least until the 2040s – have no clear way out.

I make this obvious point to emphasise that the immediate explanation of what has happened lies not only and not mainly in different feelings about the EU in Britain, but in different political opportunities and levels of fear. The contrasting votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland have particular explanations. Scottish nationalists – like their counterparts in Catalonia – see the EU as an indispensable support for independence. Northern Ireland sees the matter primarily as one affecting its own, still tense domestic politics and its relations with the Republic. In a European perspective, Scotland and Northern Ireland are the outliers, not England and Wales. Indeed, Scotland’s vote makes it stand out as one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe. If ever there is another referendum to see whether Scots prefer the EU to the UK, it will show whether this level of support for the EU is solid.

If England is exceptional, it is not in its disaffection from the EU, nor in the political divisions the referendum vote has exposed (if France, for instance, had such a vote, one could expect blood in the streets). Rather, its exceptional characteristic is its long-standing and settled scepticism about the European project in principle, greater than in any other EU country. Every ­member has a specific history that shapes its attitude to the theoretical idea of European integration. As John Gillingham, one of the most perceptive historians of the EU, describes its beginnings: “to the French [supranationalism was] a flag of convenience, to the Italians it was preferable (by definition) to government by Rome, to the Germans a welcome escape route, and to the Benelux nations a better choice than being dominated by powerful neighbours”.

Subsequently, for the eastern European states, it was a decisive step away from communist dictatorship, and for southern Europe a line drawn under a traumatic history of civil conflict. There is also a widespread belief, powerful though fanciful, that the EU prevents war between the European states. All these are important reasons why there remains considerable support for unification as an aspiration. But all these reasons are weaker, and some of them non-existent, in Britain, and especially in England. The simple reason for this is that Britain’s experience of the 20th century was far less traumatic. Moreover, during that time loyalty to the nation was not tarnished with fascism, but was rather the buttress of freedom and democracy. Conversely, the vision of a European “superstate” is seen less as a guarantee of peace and freedom, and rather as the latest in a five-century succession of would-be continental hegemons.

Given all this, an obvious question is why the United Kingdom ever joined in the European project in the first place. The answer helps to explain the country’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm. Its first response to the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 was not to join, but to agree to establish a separate European Free Trade Association (Efta) in 1959 with Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland; over the next three decades the seven founder members were joined by Finland, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This worked efficiently, cheaply and amicably, and, in time, Efta and the EEC would doubtless have created trading arrangements and systems of co-operation. But then the historic mistake was made. Efta was considered too small to provide the diplomatic clout craved by Whitehall at a time of severe post-imperial jitters. A cabinet committee warned in 1960 that “if we try to remain aloof from [the EEC] – bearing in mind that this will be happening simultaneously with the contraction of our overseas possessions – we shall run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any real claim to be a world Power”.

Besides, Washington disliked Efta as a barrier to its aim of a federal Europe, and the Americans put heavy pressure on London to apply to accede to the Treaty of Rome, which it duly did in August 1961. “It is only full membership, with the possibility of controlling and dominating Europe,” wrote an optimistic British cabinet official, “that is really attractive.”

As the former US secretary of state Dean Acheson (one of the early backers of European integration) put it, in a now celebrated comment in December 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role . . . apart from Europe . . . based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States [or] on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ . . . – this role is about played out.”

Acheson’s words long haunted British policymakers; perhaps they still do. And yet Britain remains one of the half-dozen strongest and most assertive states anywhere in the world, just as it has been for the past three centuries.

To fear of diplomatic marginalisation was added fear of economic decline. A government report in 1953 warned of “relegation of the UK to the second division”. Over the next 30 years there was a chorus of dismay about “the sick man of Europe”. Belief that EEC membership at any price was the only cure for Britain’s perceived economic ills became the orthodoxy in official circles: Britain was “the sinking Titanic”, and “Europe” the lifeboat.

So, on 1 January 1973 Britain formally entered the EEC with Denmark and Ireland. Other Efta members remained outside the Community – Switzerland and Norway for good. Harold Wilson’s 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EEC in effect turned on Europe’s superior economic performance – which, though no one realised it at the time, had just ended.

This memory of apparent British economic weakness half a century ago still seems to weigh with older Remainers. Yet it was based on a fundamental misconception: that European growth rates were permanently higher than in a supposedly outdated and declining Britain. In reality, faster growth on the mainland in the 1950s and 1960s was due to one-off structural modernisation: the large agricultural workforce shifted into more productive industrial employment. From the mid-1940s to the early 1970s this gave several European countries “windfall growth” at a higher rate than was possible in Britain, which since the 19th century had had no large agricultural sector to convert. By the early 1970s, once that catching up was finished, European growth rates became the same as, or slightly lower than, Britain’s. When measured over the whole half-century from 1950 to 2000, Britain’s economic performance was no different from the ­European norm. By the mid-1980s, growth was faster than in France and Germany, and today Britain’s economic fundamentals remain strong.

Slower European growth lessened the perceived attractiveness of EU integration. In 1992, on Black Wednesday (16 September), hesitant participation in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism led to forced devaluations in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain and, finally, Britain. This was a huge political shock, though an economic boost.

Black Wednesday subsequently made it politically difficult for Britain to join the eurozone – allowing us a narrow escape, attributable more to circumstance than to policy, as vocal political and economic lobbies urged joining.

Moreover, Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU was declining as a proportion of its global activity: as Gordon Brown observed in 2005, 80 per cent of the UK’s potential trade lay outside the EU. The EU’s single market proved not very effective at increasing trade between its members even before the crash of 2007-2008, and prolonged austerity thereafter made it stagnant. Consequently, in the 2016 referendum campaign, more emphasis was placed on the dangers of leaving the single market than on the precise benefits of being in it.

But the days when Britain seemed the Titanic and Europe the lifeboat were long gone. On the contrary, Britain, with its fluid and largely unregulated labour market, had become the employer of last resort for the depressed countries of the eurozone. The sustained importation of workers since the 1990s had become, for a large part of Britain’s working class, the thing that most obviously outweighed whatever legal or economic advantages the EU might theoretically offer.

***

What galvanised the vote for Brexit, I think, was a core attachment to national democracy: the only sort of democracy that exists in Europe. That is what “getting our country back” essentially means. Granted, the slogan covers a multitude of concerns and wishes, some of them irreconcilable; but that is what pluralist democracy involves. Britain has long been the country most ­resistant to ceding greater powers to the EU: opinion polls in the lead-up to the referendum showed that only 6 per cent of people in the UK (compared to 34 per cent in France, for instance, and 26 per cent in Germany) favoured increased centralisation – a measure of the feebleness of Euro-federalism in Britain.

In contrast, two-thirds wanted powers returned from the EU to the British government, with a majority even among the relatively Europhile young. This suggests a much greater opposition to EU centralisation than shown by the 52 per cent vote for Brexit. The difference may be accounted for by the huge pressure put on the electorate during the campaign. Indeed, arithmetic suggests that half even of Remain voters oppose greater powers being given to the EU. Yet its supporters regard an increase of EU control over economic and financial decisions – the basics of politics – as indispensable if the EU is to survive, because of the strains inherent in the eurozone system. This stark contradiction between the decentralisation that many of the peoples of Europe – and above all the British – want to see and the greater centralisation that the EU as an institution needs is wilfully ignored by Remain supporters. Those who deplore the British electorate’s excessive attachment to self-government as some sort of impertinence should be clear (not least with themselves) about whether they believe that the age of democracy in Europe is over, and that great decisions should be left to professional politicians, bureaucracies and large corporations.

Some have dismissed the Leave vote as an incoherent and anarchic protest against “the establishment”, or as a xenophobic reaction against immigrants. Some of the media in Britain and abroad have been doing their best to propagate this view. Yet xenophobia has not been a significant feature of British politics since the 1960s, and certainly far less so than in many obedient EU member states, including France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands. As for the anti-establishment “revolt”, this emerged when parts of the establishment began to put organised pressure on the electorate to vote Remain. Would-be opinion-formers have hardly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. They have been out of touch and out of sympathy with opinion in the country, unwilling or unable to engage in reasoned debate, and resorting to collective proclamations of institutional authority which proved embarrassingly ineffective.

Worst of all, their main argument – whether they were artists, actors, film-makers, university vice-chancellors or prestigious learned societies – was one of unabashed self interest: the EU is our milch-cow, and hence you must feed it. This was a lamentable trahison des clercs. The reaction to the referendum result by some Remain partisans has been a monumental fit of pique that includes talking up economic crisis (which, as Keynes showed, is often self-fulfilling) and smearing 17 million Leave voters as xenophobes. This is both irresponsible and futile, and paves the way to political marginalisation.

The Queen’s call for “deeper, cooler consideration” is much needed. I recall Victor Hugo’s crushing invective against French elitists who rejected the verdict of democracy, when in 1850 he scorned “your ignorance of the country today, the antipathy that you feel for it and that it feels for you”.

This antipathy has reduced English politics to a temporary shambles. It is too early to say whether there will be some realignment of the fragments: One-Nation Toryism, Conservative neoliberalism, “new” and “old” Labour, the hibernating Liberal Democrats and Greens, the various nationalists and, of course, the unpredictable Ukip. When in the past there were similar crises – such as Labour’s rift over the national government in 1931, the Liberals’ split over Irish home rule in 1886, or the Tory fragmentation over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the political balance was permanently changed.

***

Many Europeans fear that a breakdown of the EU could slide into a return to the horrors of the mid-20th century. Most people in Britain do not. The fundamental feature of the referendum campaign was that the majority was not frightened out of voting for Leave, either by political or by economic warnings. This is testimony to a significant change since the last referendum in 1975: most people no longer see Britain as a declining country dependent on the EU.

A Eurobarometer poll in 2013 showed that Britain was the only EU member state in which most citizens felt that they could face the future better outside the Union. Last month’s referendum reflected this view, which was not reversed by reiterated predictions of doom.

In retrospect, joining the Common Market in 1973 has proved an immense historic error. It is surely evident that we would not have been applying to join the EU in 2016 had we, like Norway or Switzerland, remained outside it. Yet the political and possibly economic costs of leaving it now are considerable. Even though discontent with the EU across much of Europe has recently overtaken sentiment in Britain, Britain is unique, in that, ever since the 1970s, its public has been consistently far less ­favourable to the idea of European integration than the electorate in any other country. Hence the various “opt-outs” and the critically important decision to remain outside the euro.

Now, by a great historic irony, we are heading towards the sort of associate status with the EU that we had in the late 1960s as the leading member of Efta, and which we could have kept. Instead, this country was led by its political elite, for reasons of prestige and because of exaggerated fears of national decline and marginalisation, into a vain attempt to be “at the heart of Europe”. It has been a dangerous illusion, born of the postwar declinist obsession, that Britain must “punch above its weight” both by following in the footsteps of the United States and by attaching itself to the EU.

For some, money, blood and control over our own policy were sacrifices worth making for a “seat at the top table”. This dual strategy has collapsed. In future we shall have to decide what is the appropriate and desirable role for Britain to play in the world, and we shall have to decide it for ourselves.

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is “The English and Their History” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt