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'I blame the parents, too'

Today's Labour Party spokesmen and other liberal social
commentators have accepted the arguments of yesterday's
conservatives, says Kate Lawrence

The juvenile crime panic has accelerated the collapse of the traditional arguments of liberal/left critics, that social problems are primarily generated by social and economic inequalities. They have all but abandoned the idea - considered common sense for decades - that the problems individuals face have something to do with society. Instead a new consensus is emerging that individual degeneracy is to blame for the ills of society.

In the Labour Party's major intervention in the crime debate, shadow home affairs spokesman Tony Blair warned that failure to teach individuals what is right and wrong would result in the 'moral chaos which engulfs us all'. More emphasis had to be placed on individual responsibility while Britain got 'tough on crime' as well as its causes.

Blair's echoing of traditional conservative themes won applause from right-wing commentators. The Sunday Times hailed him as 'a leading light of the intelligent tendency in the Labour Party' and described his emphasis on 'the individual responsibility of criminals and the moral vacuum behind teenage lawlessness' as 'the beginnings of the national consensus...to produce the policies needed to stop the rot' (28 February 1993).

Blair is not alone in retreating from the idea that people's problems derive from social and economic inequality. The cry of individual responsibility is everywhere. Labour's social policy think-tank recently abandoned the idea that everyone had a right to welfare benefits, while leading Labour MP David Blunkett has called for a national service-style community work programme to discipline deviant youths. The traditionally liberal Guardian welcomed Blair's law-and-order speech as the best news of the week, noting how he had 'rightly berated the left for putting too much emphasis for the cause of crime on social conditions, and too little on individual responsibility' (22 February 1993). That editorial followed an article in which two of the Guardian's leading political and social commentators, Martin Kettle and Melanie Phillips, aped the irrational response of right-wing pundits to two-year old James Bulger's death, by arguing in effect that fears that we are in the middle of a juvenile crime wave are justified even if we aren't in the middle of a juvenile crime wave.

Kettle and Phillips quoted statistics which show that deaths such as that of James Bulger are extremely rare, but nevertheless concluded that his was 'a death for our times' (22 February 1993). Their explanation repeated what right wingers have said for years, that a new generation of problem children was the product of 'family breakdown or poor parenting'.

Phillips has also approvingly reported the view of criminologist Dr David Farrington, that the typical juvenile delinquent is born into 'a low-income, large family with criminal parents, who supervise him poorly with harsh and erratic techniques, and are likely to be in conflict and to separate' (5 March 1993).

The notion that irresponsible parents are to blame for a generation of juvenile delinquents echoes the prejudices of right-wing commentators who have always sought to blame social problems on the moral failings of individuals at the bottom end of society.

Demoralised misfits

The classic statement of this idea can be found in the writings of the American sociologist and 'underclass' protagonist Charles Murray. He argues, in a late twentieth-century version of a late nineteenth-century idea, that Britain, like America, is under threat from a demoralised layer of social misfits. The typical members of Murray's 'underclass' are individuals caught in a self-generating immoral web of crime, wilful unemployment and illegitimacy.

By focusing on the morality of individuals at the bottom of society, conservatives such as Murray seek to shift the burden of responsibility away from the structures of capitalist society. Rather than social problems being seen as evidence that there is something wrong with how society is organised, single mothers and absent fathers, passing on their immoral behaviour patterns to delinquent offspring, are held to blame.

There is no more proof today of any repetitive behavioural link between unemployment, family structure and crime than there was a century ago. All that has changed is that today such ideas have won an audience among the kind of liberal critics who until recently would have dismissed them as Tory cant.

Sticking plaster

Although the postwar liberal consensus identified problems at the level of society, it believed that these could be resolved through state intervention. In fact, however, the problems of inequality were always too deeply rooted in capitalist society to be tackled through the sticking-plaster approach of the welfare state. The return of economic recession in the seventies left even less scope for expensive state interventions. The slump conditions of today leave no scope at all.

The end result is that the state-sponsored solutions which liberals proposed in the past have proved spectacularly unsuccessful in solving social problems. This has helped to throw the liberal lobby on to the defensive, leaving it vulnerable to the right's arguments about individual responsibility.

Beyond help

The failure of state-sponsored solutions has also given conservatives more confidence about their tired old arguments. Look, they can now tell the liberals, despite all that your precious welfare state has tried to do for these people, they are still at the bottom of the heap, and many are even worse off. It just goes to show that the real problem is their incorrigibly degenerate 'underclass' behaviour. Unable to offer an alternative today, liberal opinion has retreated before this argument.

The accommodation of a new generation of Guardian writers and Labour politicians to old right-wing notions about individual moral failings helps to divert attention from the failings of a broken-down social system, and to reinforce the idea that the only solution is a dose of discipline and old-fashioned law and order.

A change of climate

The emphasis upon individual responsibility for social problems is now widely accepted as if it were an obvious and eternal truth. Yet until very recently, things were seen the other way around.

The post-Second World War welfare state, characterised by universal unemployment benefit, free education and healthcare, rested on the new consensus that social problems were the consequence of social and economic inequalities, which society as a whole had a responsibility to tackle. The connection between issues like crime and economic and social factors was seen as common sense. Although behavioural factors always played a part in mainstream explanations of social problems, they remained only in a residual form.

From the 1940s, the category that dominated discussions on poverty was the 'problem family'. The term retained a sense that poverty had something to do with the behavioural patterns of a certain group of people. But it also reflected the confidence of those concerned with social problems such as poverty that the 'problem family' could be dealt with by the welfare state.

The balance in favour of state intervention as the solution to social problems reached its zenith in the 1960s. The persistence of poverty during those capitalist boom years did lead to a renewed sense that society might not be able to find a solution. However, the consensus in favour of state intervention led to major social experiments such as Labour's comprehensive education system and president Lyndon Johnson's 'war on poverty' in the USA.

Although by the end of the sixties there was growing anxiety about the ability of the welfare state to eradicate society's ills, there remained a durable consensus that fundamental social and economic problems required state-backed solutions.

In 1974 Tory MP Keith Joseph, seen by many as Margaret Thatcher's mentor, railed against teenage pregnancies among husband-less women from the lowest social classes. 'They are producing problem children', he said, 'the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, subnormal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters'. It sounds much like the current craze for single mother-bashing. However, 20 years ago, the weight of established opinion against such public expressions of prejudice meant that Joseph's remarks almost finished his career.

Even as recently as the Brixton riots of 1981, Lord Scarman's official inquiry argued that social and economic factors such as poverty and unemployment were significant causes of the unrest, rather than it being a simple matter of criminality.

What has changed since then is not the reality of poverty and social inequality, but the political climate in which they are perceived. The collapse of traditional liberalism, and the new priority which politicians and commentators from a liberal background place on individual immorality, has enabled the conservatives to redefine what is seen as common sense today.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 55, May 1993

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