Personal responsibility was the political buzzword of last week. The prime minister urged us to take personal responsibility for global waste, poverty and pollution by eating up our greens—I hope he himself left a clean plate after consuming his 57 varieties of high-status food at the G8.
Less absurdly, David Cameron spoke of personal responsibility at a by-election launch in the miserable depths of Glasgow’s Gallowgate about “broken” Britain. It is a society, he said, that is “in danger of losing its sense of personal responsibility, social responsibility, common decency and yes, even public morality”.
It is remarkable that a Conservative politician can now talk like this without being ridiculed. No one disagrees any longer that Britain is in parts and in places broken; Gallowgate is a horrifying microcosm of broken families, broken spirits, broken health and broken schools; it is a dark place of chronic unemployment, violence and crime, of disorder and fear—a disgrace to the supposedly developed world.
It’s also true that at long last people of all persuasions are beginning to recognise that this social breakdown is due in part to the abdication both of authority and of personal responsibility that began some time after the war. Some are inclined to emphasise the demoralising paternalism of the welfare state, others the permissiveness of the 1960s, but few now question this abdication, at all levels. Not only that—taking personal responsibility is sometimes forbidden, or punished, as when misguided adults try to control delinquent children in the street.
However, while personal responsibility and shared morality are essential to a good society and the only glue for a broken one, neither can be had just by whistling for them. Both depend on an instinctive sense of a social contract. Conventional morality is meaningless to a boy who has nothing whatsoever to gain by good behaviour. Personal responsibility means nothing if you have grown up neglected, abused and powerless among adults who hardly know what it is and feel powerless themselves.
Cameron said in Glasgow that “social problems are often the consequences of the choices that people make”. There’s truth in that and a truth that has been wilfully neglected for decades. But the countervailing truth is that free choice—and real personal responsibility—barely exist for some people, least of all for those who are most likely to cause problems.
Take knife crime, an emblem of what is wrong with British society. Imagine the history of a boy who gets a knife and might well use it. I always think of Jo, a Notting Hill boy I used to know, but there are countless others like him. Everything that happened to Jo could have been designed to turn him into a social menace.
He came here from Latin America with his single mother, “for the NHS”, he told me. His mother worked in a bar here and produced other children with other men, with whom she shared a council flat. Jo and his brother lived on their own, as young schoolboys, in another council flat.
He went, sometimes, to a notorious school where he learnt nothing but, being bright and charismatic, he became a leader of others in the street. He turned to petty crime and then to worse; drug running or dealing is the usual activity round here. He became a notorious bully and actually tortured some boys I knew of to stop them giving evidence against him in court; the case collapsed. Having impregnated a girl he was later removed by social services to some other unlucky borough.
The point of this all-too-common story is the damage that was done to Jo from his earliest years. It is not to excuse his crimes or the damage he has done to others. My own son has been mugged many times and not long ago called me from A&E in the Mile End Road, east London, where he was being stitched up by a doctor; a group of youths had attacked him, beaten him and slashed his head open with a beer can. So I do not feel soft on street crime; it terrifies me.
However, I do believe that boys like Jo are in an impossible position. Either they are so damaged by early neglect—and there is a lot of evidence that neglected babies fail to develop, cognitively or emotionally—and so led astray by delinquent parenting that they are incapable of living an orderly life or holding down a job.
Libraries of research have been done into this. For babies and young children, a failure to bond with their mothers, or constant separation anxiety, lack of attention and stimulation or actual abuse do permanent damage to the brain, just as bad parenting and lack of good male role models do other kinds of damage. Two common outcomes are a lack of empathy and impaired impulse control, both of which are associated with violent crime. Such children may be very much less capable of personal responsibility, or of rational choice, than children from more normal homes.
Alternatively for bright, ambitious boys such as Jo, hungry for life’s much advertised pleasures but too illiterate and unemployable to earn them, crime does seem a rational choice. “The world is not thy friend,” Romeo said to the poverty-stricken apothecary as the way to persuade him to commit the crime of selling poison.
What can anyone in youth offender rehabilitation schemes offer such boys as an alternative—shelf-stacking at a supermarket, cleaning the streets, the contempt of his peers? For a young, vital, angry man an Asbo often seems better than Asda. A criminal conviction means almost nothing to someone who has almost nothing to lose but his benighted freedom.
Morality depends on having something to lose. It isn’t just a matter of learning right from wrong, least of all in a post-religious society. Morality is socially constructed. I will respect your property and your person because I want you to respect mine. We both have something to lose. One does not have to be educated in political philosophy to understand that ancient deal. But if I have neither property nor respect from anyone, what’s in the deal for me?
That is Jo’s problem. Neither an appeal to morality nor the threat of a community sentence or the brutalities of jail—90% of prisoners are mentally ill—will solve it for him. Nor will any of that solve the problems he presents to the rest of us. It seems to me heartless to suggest that it might.