Today’s Mail on Sunday gleefully leads on comments by Tottenham MP David Lammy, who apparently believes that the tightening of UK law on hitting children is partly responsible for the outbreak of rioting in London and other cities last summer. It’s an asinine, idiotic reation – and the Mail’s report is full of inconsistency and nonsense so abject that it would really be rather glorious if it were not so desperately dangerous (the vision of gangs of feral social workers going around the streets waiting to seize children with reddened skin from decent God-fearing homes while ignoring working-class abusers is the purest Daily Mail dishonesty).
But perhaps the most important aspect of the piece is what it reveals about the values that have become politically mainstream in Britain.
The arguments against hitting children are familiar and do not need to be repeated here. The idea that violence by the powerful against the powerless is a legitimate way of dealing with disputes seems to me to be largely nonsense – nobody appears to suggest that disputes between adults who can hit each other back should be solved by violence, and the assumption seems to be that children cannot be trusted to understand any other kind of boundary. Lammy even comes close to repeating the old hypocrisy that you have to chastise physically in order to remove children from danger – as if physical removal were the same as angry hitting.
And nowhere is the question addressed – in the days when hitting was more widespread, less condemned than now, was there less or more violence in society? Lammy appeals – like so many more reactionaries before him – to Victorian values. Where is his evidence that Victorian England was less violent, more peaceful, more contented than modern England? Lammy is allegedly a clever man – it should not take him very long to discover that Victorian England was a very violent and insecure place indeed. Responsible politics – especially on the left – is about debunking myths, not buying into them.
What matters in this case is the context. The argument seems to be: thrash children into obedience and you won’t get riots – you’ll get disciplined people who go about their business lawfully. In one phrase, you have accepted the idea that there is no such thing as society; people go on to the streets because they are individually undisciplined and violent, the products of lax parenting, The causes of last summer’s rioting were many and complex – but neoliberalism has a powerful vested interest in denying the political and blaming the whole affair on the personal. Were there riots in other European countries where hitting children is completely illegal?
Lammy’s comments are useful to Labour because they provide a means of rationalising its march away from the Welfare State and its embracing of neoliberal ideology. It’s all of a piece with Ed Balls endorsing cuts, or Liam Byrne rewriting Beveridge’s support for universal benefits. Above all, it’s a wonderful way of deflecting opinion away from the real crisis of legitimacy, and the economic warfare on the vulnerable, that appear increasingly to be the defining features of Con Dem Britain.