Where Are The Grown-ups?

First published in Huffington Post

Maybe its because I’ve hit 40 that I’ve developed this ‘what is the world coming to?’ response to much of what I hear in the news. You know the feeling? Its similar to the one when you don’t recognise any of the celebs on the front of Hello! magazine any more; or when you really can’t tell one boy band from another, and are genuinely shocked by the goings-on on Geordie Shore. But maybe its not me, its you. Or them?

It all started with the relentlessly destructive dynamic of the past few weeks’ Jimmy Savile hysteria. The abuse done to our sense of normality, to our ability to get a bit of perspective on things. The BBC apparently admitting all without quite knowing what it was accused of. Then there was the news that the European Court of Human Rights may force us to give prisoners the vote. Some supposedly liberal types thought this a wonderful idea. Not for democracy but for the rehabilitation of prisoners! And the interrogation of Emma Harrison, former chair of the much-maligned A4E, by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News has been doing the rounds on YouTube. The interviewer’s Paxman-like demolition of this former beneficiary of the payment-by-results Work Programme has been much applauded. The Programme itself came out of it relatively unscathed, despite the revelation that millions of public money was spent on getting less than 4 of 100 long-term unemployed into work.

These three stories may sound like they have nothing to do with each other. But they are of a kind in as far as each features the increasingly shaky relationship some of us seem to have with what it means to be an adult. So what really bothered me about Harrison was not her past at A4E but how she played the victim in that interview. She accused Guru-Murthy of bullying her. What irked most about those ‘liberal’ campaigners for prisoner votes is that they were unable to tell the difference between free citizens having the right to exercise that freedom at the polls, and the unfreedom implied by the imprisonment of those who fail to live up to society’s agreed minimum standards. With Savile it was less his alleged abuse of children, than the failure of his detractors to even entertain the notion that allegations against a dead man recollected by adults who were children at the time, do not imply that the BBC, and society at large, is really a giant paedophile ring.

The trawling of 70s and 80s childhoods and the corridors of the BBC for dark tales of unimaginable deeds; the turning of democracy, and the hard won right to vote, into a not very promising therapy for convicts; the appeal to one’s own vulnerability when cornered by a journalist and asked to account for one’s actions; are each testament to the fact that increasingly acting like a grown-up and demanding to be treated as such, has gone out of fashion. We are actively diminished by each of these events, as capable, autonomous adults, deserving of each other’s respect. Trusting that we are not a society of abusers and victims, not turning one bad case into the proverbial and all too chilling ‘tip of the iceberg’; and having self-respect enough not to feel bullied when somebody says something we don’t like, are the sorts of qualities every wannabe grown-up should aspire to. If we don’t rediscover what it means to be a grown-up pretty soon I fear things could really get out of hand. Oh, they already have.

Why We Should Revisit the Riots

First published in Huffington Post

Ok, I’ll admit when I first read a headline not so long ago that Riots may be controlled with chemicals, I got the wrong end of the stick. Or should I say baton? I thought that given their humiliation on the streets of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool last summer, the police had decided in future to spray rioters into a drug-induced stupor. In fact the article referred to a riots-fuelled frenzy of research and spending as they go on a shopping spree for new weaponry with which to project CS gas, pepper spray and something called ‘skunk oil’ at the nation’s unruly youth.

What they and their colleagues in the political class have singularly failed to do, however, is to project their authority. Hence the stockpiling of ammunition in a vain attempt to shore it up. Ken Clarke admitted in the wake of the riots that ‘the system was briefly caught unawares’. As were we all. The riots were, he said, ‘part of an outburst of outrageous behaviour by the criminal classes’. Clarke argued that reforming the criminal justice system would not be enough. The ‘social deficit’ needed to be addressed by changes in ‘education, welfare and family policy too’ – by implication the latter bringing into question not only the authority of state institutions but of teachers, communities and families. While I don’t agree with his solutions the justice secretary at least understands the gravity of the problem. Which is why, a year on, we need to revisit the riots.

And we can start by questioning the stale old assumptions used to explain them away at the time. Doing some projecting of their own were the left-liberal commentariat supported by no end of hastily hashed together reports finding – surprise, surprise – what they were hoping to find all along. Eagerly taking the reins of their favourite hobby horse, the first to echo the excuses of the rioters were the authors of a Guardian-LSE study.

In their initial conclusions they acknowledged that many looters admitted to being opportunists. But hostility toward the police and ‘a range of political grievances’ vaguely to do with economic disadvantage were also to blame, they concluded. As did the other reports. But what’s new? Why did the riots happen when they did, why did they spread so quickly only to die down again? Why the need to write so many reports to discern the ‘political grievances’ of what looked so randomly destructive to the rest of us?

No more insightful was Brian Paddick, former deputy assistant in the Metropolitan Police and recurrently hopeless London Mayoral candidate, who claimed that the failure to hold an inquest into the death of Mark Duggan – whose shooting is said to have ‘triggered’ the riots – will somehow lead to ‘another riot’. Similarly one of the police officers interviewed as part of the Guardian-LSE study was in little doubt that all it will take is ‘bad economic times, hot weather, some sort of an event that sets it off’. What … like the Olympics?!

I am no fan of the revolting rioters who trashed their communities only to be indulged as poor victims by ventriloquist apologists. But surely even their actions are not so easily determined by the official response to an incident that, in the end, had as much to do with the riots as the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had to do with the outbreak of the First World War. Never mind the bloody weather!

Everybody concerned needs to grow a backbone. From the police and the politicians, to the young people, families and communities that they, not to mention the academics and commentators more interested in confirming their own prejudices, are so busy patronising. In fact we should all be getting to grips with what were extraordinary, disturbing and quite unprecedented events but may well come back to haunt us if we don’t.

Crime in the community?

You’d think last summer’s riots would harden the attitude of the political elite on youthful criminality. For all the tough and therapeutic talk, far from it.

Ian Birrell, a former speechwriter for David Cameron, has defended the notion that we should hug a hoodie. This softly-softly approach is far preferable to the legislative diarrhoea of a New Labour administration that was ‘so contemptuous of civil liberties’, he says. Similarly we should welcome the approach of the rather likeable if gaff-prone Kenneth Clarke after the ‘prison works’ – er, no it doesn’t – line pursued by former home secretary and Tory leader Michael Howard. Regardless of how hard line successive governments have claimed to be the prison population, says Birrell, has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, and re-offending rates are as high as ever.

But is the opening of the prison gates much of an alternative? It seems obvious that to do so can’t help but ‘work’ in as far as it reduces prison numbers. But is it really the case that ‘community punishments, restorative justice and rehabilitation’ are any more just than incarceration as Birrell claims? It seems to me that this question will remain unanswered for as long as the in/out debate is more concerned with reducing public spending than the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system.

Either way, his concern that Cameron is now reverting to Old Tory type is misplaced. According to The Guardian the prime minister proposes ‘giving courts the power to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, passports and driving licences … [and] to electronically tag offenders and prevent them from leaving home for most of the day’. But far from being a throwback to less cuddly times this only confirms the illiberalism of the supposedly liberal non-custodial alternative to locking criminals up.

The reality is that the government and its supposedly ‘progressive’ opponents are turning society into an open prison. This not only blurs the line between the inside and the outside, but implies that none of us are properly free. It would be a far more just and liberal approach to insist that criminals ‘do their time’. 

No justice for yoof?

The Youth Justice Board (YJB), under recent threat of abolition, was saved like the NHS and the benefits system before it, by the politically appointed of the Lords and the self-appointed of the commentariat. But, putting that to one side, the threat has brought to the surface an ongoing conflict in youth offending circles: should they be concerned most with criminal justice or with the ‘rights’ and welfare of children?

Rod Morgan, a former chairman of the YJB, has expressed his hopes that the reprieve will embolden it in its ‘progressive’ mission. But what does this mean? Particularly now, after the riots. Is it true that the fundamental problem facing society today is a lack of concern for the ‘rights’ of children and a neglect of their welfare? We are surrounded by such concerns. And yet, while critics are right to condemn the knee-jerk incarceration of young rioters – apparently increasing the already shockingly high number of children in detention by 8% – this has less to do with hostility to children’s welfare than with an absence of adult authority.

Regardless of whether or not we are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the legitimacy of which should be in question – what is of greater concern is the lashing out by a society, and its institutions, as they lose their grip on the morals and the behaviour of the young. Mark Johnson, a ‘rehabilitated offender and former drug user’ now heading up the charity User Voice, argues ‘there is no other way to access the lives and minds of the marginalised than by utilising the skills of those who have been there too’. Similarly, an advocate of ex-offenders going into schools says: ‘The corridors are intellectually bankrupt on this issue but the cells have more than enough wisdom to confront it’.

While I’m no fan of the punitive and regard myself as a progressive, is it really the case that the youth justice system and society at large have so lost faith in their ability to hold the line, that only ex-cons have any authority over young people these days? What’s progressive about that?

The Drugs Policy Don’t Work

First published in Huffington Post

There were record seizures of class A drugs into the UK last year. According to the National Treatment Agency, there are 10,000 fewer addicts seeking treatment than there were two years previously. But the fact that border officials found 2,116kg of cocaine and 773kg of heroin between April and September is hardly in itself cause for celebration. On the contrary, the evident and continued – if not increasing – demand for these drugs points both to the depths of the drug problem and to the futility of its criminalisation. Reportedly, the UK spends more, proportionally, on drug prevention than any other country in Europe. The sentences for those supplying drugs are as stiff as they come.

And yet there were estimated to be around 3 million users of illicit drugs in 2009/10. The authors of a piece in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free rightly point out that the criminalisation of drugs is long and widely acknowledged to have failed, and that it is time to try a different approach. They go on to argue that we should look to The Science. But the likes of David Nutt, the government’s former drugs adviser – sacked precisely because he thought the experts were better placed to make policy decisions than our elected representatives – are tripping on the news that magic mushrooms might heighten wellbeing for depressives. They are not, it would seem, best placed to make a principled case against the use and abuse of drugs.

According to Nutt’s fellow academics at Imperial College London, test subjects described a ‘loss of connectivity’ and a state of consciousness that is ‘less constrained by inputs from the outside world’. Whatever the merits of the research and the benefits this particular drug might hold out for those suffering from clinical depression; the subjects may, inadvertently, have stumbled upon the problem with drugs, and the problem with the arguments for decriminalisation made by its more spaced-out advocates.

A disconnect from the wider world is not just an emergent property of hallucinogenic drugs; it is also an argument against their use. Similarly, those who hide behind The Science to defend the decriminalisation of drugs, also tend to exhibit a studied withdrawal from any wider political or moral debate. Which is precisely the opposite of what is required. It is only by engaging in an open public debate about the rights and wrongs of the matter that we are likely to get beyond a policy that – I think we can all agree – doesn’t work.

For that reason the fact that Richard Branson, (albeit the archetypal hippy entrepreneur) has appeared at a House of Commons home affairs committee inquiry in an effort to make the case, is a good thing. As are new sentencing guidelines recommending much greater leniency for recreational users. The guidelines also, rightly, recognise that so-called drug ‘mules’ are often impoverished middlemen rather than the sinister types we imagine. However, we are told that it is the poor women that we should feel sorry for. They have fallen victim to and been exploited by the dealers and gangs, according to the kindly judiciary.

Campaigners need better arguments than this if they are to go beyond the patronising view that those caught up in the drugs trade are helpless and pathetic; or to get beyond dopey assertions about the supposed health benefits of getting high. The seeming libertarianism of many advocates for the liberalisation of drug policy is largely illusory. I’d much rather hear a good life-affirming defence of the criminalisation of drugs, than be fed the victim-centred therapeutics cooked up on a spoon by campaigners for its decriminalisation. The sooner they put down their spliffs and re-engage with the world around them the better.