It took just 24 hours for the media to turn murder victim James Bulger into
a symbol of the 1990s. It wasn't just the death of a little boy (allegedly
at the hands of boys only just old enough to be prosecuted) that led the
Guardian to describe the sordid affair as 'The murder of innocence'.
It was the mob, the sight of angry 'common' people straining to deal out
street justice to the accused. 'What has happened to the middle class values
of restraint and decency?' 'How have we come to live in a society where
10-year old boys batter infants to death, and working class mothers - their
own babies in prams - join lynch mobs?'
The answer penned by journalists from the Mirror to the Mail is
essentially simple: the family has broken down. It started, they would have
us believe, with the blurring of 'right' and 'wrong' in the 'anything-goes-society
of the sixties' and has ended in a total breakdown of relations between
parents and children today. We need the family, they say, to teach children
the unwritten rules of life. Who, if not mum and dad, will teach them to
respect their elders and betters, abide by the law, and stick to an acceptable
The relationship between parents and children has become a leitmotiv of
Britain's decline. In the days of Empire, we are told, when Britain was
truly great, everybody knew their place. Colonies respected imperial powers,
the working class knew its place, women respected men, children respected
adults and the world was a safe place in which to live. Now, all is chaos
in a savage world. Husbands neglect their wives, mothers neglect their children,
and the whole fabric of British society is threadbare.
The Mother has the starring role in this immorality play: maternal neglect
makes victims of children, and fails to quell the savagery of adults. And
all that prevents a child from falling into the clutches of such savagery
is its mother's apron strings.
Evil, we are told, stalks our offspring. In the week of the Bulger killing
we read of a nine-year old trying to strangle a baby and a nurse who got
kicks from killing kids in a Nottinghamshire hospital. The message to mums
is clear: 'Your kids aren't safe anywhere out of your sight.'
A mother's responsibility is there by implication even if it is not made
explicit. Mrs Bulger has not only lost a son, she has been put in the dock
for leaving her baby outside a shop. Social commentators may not have openly
pointed the finger of guilt, but the implication rang through the police
warnings for parents not to let their kids out of their sight. Almost every
caller to one Liverpool radio phone-in condemned her for neglect.
James' mother will take her share of the blame, and the mothers of the boys
who took him will probably pick up the rest. They've already been pilloried
for not recognising their offspring from the video pictures taken by a security
camera. The Daily Mail was quick to point out that the accused were
accompanied to court by social workers - no loving parents in sight. No doubt
when the personal details of the alleged young killers are released we will
find that they come from 'dysfunctional' families and were never taught right
Last month was to mothers what the Glorious Twelfth is to grouse: the announcement
of open season. The collective wail of despair in response to the Liverpool
murder combined with a tirade against that other irresponsible mother: the
infamous Yasmin Gibson, mother of 'Home Alone' Gemma. If Mrs Bulger was
meant to symbolise a woman whose unconscious 'neglect' led to tragedy, Ms
Gibson epitomised conscious neglect.
We were invited to stand back in amazement at the heartless audacity of
a woman who would trot off on a Spanish holiday leaving 11-year old Gemma
at home, alone. Well, not quite alone. She was, on closer inspection, spending
the nights with one of two neighbours but going home to her own flat to change
her clothes and do her homework. The staff at her £860-a-term theatre
school didn't notice anything even slightly unusual about her. On the day
that the story broke, when the press were crucifying her mother for neglect,
and hounding the child to uncover the depth of her distress, Gemma was unobtainable
because she was recording the voice-over for a TV commercial. Hardly a case
of gross abuse.
The great panic about parental neglect is precisely that - a panic. The James
Bulger case was tragic, the Home Alone case was ridiculous, but neither
represent 'moral decline'. Mothers have been leaving children outside shops
for decades, and will continue to do so (what else can they do?). Mothers
will also leave 11-year olds under the watchful eye of neighbours. And the
chance of any ensuing tragedy is slight.
The reason why we don't usually hear about it when 11-year olds are left
alone is because nothing happens to them. By the same token, nothing
usually happens to toddlers waiting outside shops. In the 10 years between
1982 and 1991, according to Home Office figures, just 10 children under five
have been killed by strangers, while 571 have been killed by someone known
to them, usually a family member or neighbour. Statistically you could argue
that a kid is safer waiting outside a shop, or indeed 'Home Alone' than
in the bosom of its family.
Mothers have quite enough problems to contend with, without being made to
feel guilty every time they take their eyes off their offspring. There are
no lessons for them to learn from the recent great child-neglect/moral-collapse
scandals, except perhaps this one: whether or not you have your child under
surveillance, you can be pretty sure that someone is watching you. Mothers
in Liverpool may feel comforted that the abduction of an infant, and his
subsequent route through the city can be recorded on videotape with such
precision, but it makes you wonder what else, who else they are watching
the rest of the time.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993