The shooting last week of 11-year-old Rhys Jones has become a signal for the Conservative leader David Cameron to talk about “anarchy in the UK”, while another Tory Simon Heffer blames “welfarism” and “Marxism” for the present ills of society. But the essential underlying cause of youth disenfranchisement and estrangement are ignored by all the major parties in their search for “law-and-order” votes.
New Labour wants yet more curbs on young people. This is despite the fact that there are now around 70,000 school-age children entering the youth justice system each year while the number of young women sentenced has doubled since New Labour came to power in 1997. The age of criminal responsibility was brought down to 10 from 14, four years below the age in most of Europe. The “tough on crime” approach adopted by successive Tory home secretaries and continued with a vengeance by New Labour has been disastrous. It is obvious that Asbos, curfews, citizenship courses and longer sentencing have worsened the problem.
The tragic murder of Rhys Jones has led to much soul searching. Some see the causes in a breakdown of authority, a decline or lack of morals, bad parenting, as well as the punitive approach adopted by the legal system. Writers like Angela Neustatter have pointed to the failure of the “tough on crime” approach in cutting crime and the sterling work done by those who have reject punishment as the only way to deal with desperately alienated young people. She correctly refers to a “disenfranchising of a part of society”
But the underlying cause is no great secret. Working class communities have suffered a sea-change. The Thatcher epoch drove on the de-industrialisation of Britain and the destruction of countless jobs and associated communities. New Labour has continued this process, encouraging a get-rich-quick society that has benefited some groups and excluded many, many more sections of the community. In working class areas, skilled and respected jobs in shipbuilding, steel, mining and engineering have been replaced for a few by work in call centres and the service industries. Much of the lowest paid, unskilled work cleaning, catering and agricultural work has gone to super-exploited migrants. There are now 1.2 million young people who are not in employment, education or training. In addition union agreements today only cover 30% of workers, with the rest of the working class having no such protection and little job security.
Learning a skill or a trade once gave young people, especially boys, the chance to develop an identity and a feeling that they were part of a class and a society where they had a role to fulfil. All that has flown through the window. For many the only form of escape is to join the armed forces, who set up their recruiting offices in areas of the high unemployment. For those who could not make the switch to the digital society or those who refuse to be paid under the minimum wage, there is little to aspire to. No wonder many – and not only the young - have turned to drinking, drug abuse and fighting as a form of escape. As one analyst, Paul Kivel, has written: “…in a dog-eats-dog culture few will get there. Hence they [young people] become cynical. At some point many come to realise that the odds are stacked against them… Many become bitter, more cynical and angry at a system that does not deliver on its promises to them.”
Add to that the flooding of many communities with cheap drugs from marijuana, to crack cocaine and heroin, a punitive attitude towards young people, a culture in which success is measured by bling in the form of celebrity, expensive houses, cars and clothing, and you have the explosive cocktail that we see around us.