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