Looking into the native Heart of Darkness
Contrary to the wild claims of the ‘Broken Britain’ brigade, the Edlington child assaults were exceptional, not typical.
In March 2009, local social services moved two brothers aged 10 and 11 from their chaotic, dysfunctional Doncaster family home into a foster home in nearby Edlington, a former mining town in South West Yorkshire, England. A month later, the two brothers, finding themselves with, in their own now infamous words, ‘nowt to do’, bumped into a couple of other boys, aged nine and 11, near a local playground. The brothers led the two boys to a bit of tree-lined wasteland before proceeding to subject them to what Judge Mr Justice Keith described, during the brothers’ subsequent sentencing at Sheffield Crown Court, as ‘prolonged sadistic violence’.
The events of that April afternoon are shocking. Anyone who’s read a report of the case cannot fail to have been astounded at the level of the brutality, and most disconcerting of all, the youth of the protagonists. These, after all, were primary school-aged kids. And yet there they were, stabbing a couple of other children, jabbing cigarettes into the wounds, and forcing their victims to sexually abuse one another. After which they simply left them for dead.
Yet, as disturbing as it was, it was also, in the words of Justice Keith, ‘truly exceptional’. In fact, it is precisely because cases of this nature are so rare, so isolated, that they are so shocking. Hence the signal notoriety of similar instances of child-on-child brutality, from the case of 10-year-old Mary Bell strangling two infants to death in 1968, to the killing of two-year-old James Bulger by two 10-year-olds, Robert Thomspon and Jon Venables, in 1993. In fact, generally, cases of children being killed are becoming increasingly rare. In a letter to the Guardian, Professor Colin Pritchard pointed out that every form of death of children has declined since records began: between 1974 and 2006, homicides have fallen by 60 per cent, and violent deaths by half.
However, despite its sheer exceptionality, the Edlington case, like the different horrors of Baby Peter or Damilola Taylor, has become for some a mirror to be held up to society. In other words, a horrific product of a highly specific set of circumstances has been transformed into a horrific symbol of a very general problem. Visions of social and moral decline abound. It seems that in every isolated tragedy, from the killing of Baby P to the torture of two school boys, commentators and politicians are able to see into the heart of a native darkness.
Writing in the Evening Standard, one journalist complained that ‘something has gone wrong with the way we live now’; ‘there is a repulsive continuum of behaviour that stretches from anti-social conduct on the streets, via the bedlam that consumes town centres late at night, via domestic violence, drug-related crime, the abuse of children, to cases at the very frontier of hell such as the Edlington horrors’.
While few are prepared to see a ‘continuum’ between getting merry on a Saturday night and infant torture, this perception of a general moral and cultural malaise reappears time and time again. In the Observer, Barbara Ellen was keen for people not to turn away when the salacious details stop pouring forth: ‘It seems to me that areas such as the one in Edlington are numerous enough (if not ubiquitous) to stop this self-serving practice of only acknowledging their existence when there are big cases like these.’ Ellen was outdone of course by Conservative Party leader David Cameron: ‘On each occasion, are we just going to say this is an individual case? That there aren’t any links to what is going wrong in our wider society, in terms of family breakdown, in terms of drug and alcohol abuse, in terms of violent videos, in terms of many of the things that were going wrong in that particular family?’ Ever the PR consultant, Cameron even has a handy brand name for this ‘social recession’: Broken Britain, he calls it, an alliteration standing in for analysis.
Not that there hasn’t been resistance to the glib state-of-society generalities being chucked around on the back of the Edlington case. When details of what had happened began to emerge last April, Labour minister Ed Balls warned: ‘The vast majority of young people should not be smeared by politicians trying to peddle rhetoric about a broken society.’ As sober resistance to the just-add-water moralising of the Tories, the government’s retort would have had a little more force had New Labour not made themselves experts in ‘peddling the rhetoric of a broken society’. Here’s shadow home secretary Tony Blair speaking in the aftermath of James Bulger’s death in 1993: ‘Look at the wreckage of our broken society. See Britain through the eyes of our children. Are we really proud of our society today?’ Sounds like ‘rhetoric about a broken society’ to me.
In a sense, however, the case of the Edlington brothers does hold a mirror up to society. But it’s not reflecting the reality of places like Edlington, or, indeed, Dewsbury, Peckham or Tottenham, or wherever else our media and political class turns its sanguine gaze. Rather it mirrors mainstream cultural and moral anxieties, from the fear of so-called feral children, to the more general fear of what the The Times called Britain’s ‘violent underclass’. A loss of moral and cultural authority at the centre of society is projected on to, and objectified, at its margins – in the form of communities dominated by a ‘toxic’ amoral subculture of booze, drugs, violence and benefits. A political and ruling class utterly bereft of moral authority, and consequently with little ability to rule with purpose, transforms its lack into these communities’ power: they become the agents of the social recession, the breakers of Britain.
For a political class lacking anything approaching authority, little wonder morally extreme cases like that of Edlington seem so appealing. They’re like the domestic equivalent of Afghanistan before it got messy; a chance to demonstrate some purpose and moral vision in the heartlands of Britain’s underclass.
All of which would be great if the idea of the underclass was a real category of society. But because it’s not real, because it’s actually a moral category which, like its conceptual antecedent ‘the residuum’, tells us more about the eyes of the beholder than what is being beheld. Those who actually live in places like Edlington are at best patronised, and at worst effaced. In the words of 84-year-old Edlington resident Sam Walton: ‘There’s nowt wrong with this community; it’s the kids they send here. I blame Donny care [Doncaster social services] for this. They brought [the two brothers] from the town and put them here with a couple aged in their 60s who were too old to be foster parents. If their own mother couldn’t cope with them, how were the foster parents going to manage?’ Local reverend, Jeffrey Stokoe, agrees with Walton’s assessment: ‘Okay, we’ve got our problems. The pit closed [in 1985] and the community is still in the process of change. But a lot of good work has been done here and there’s still a strong sense of community. People don’t leave Edlington. All they want is a bit of normality.’
None of this should be taken to suggest that there aren’t genuine social problems across Britain right now. Children do indeed seem more threatening than ever before, largely because adults are no longer able confidently to exercise authority any more, something not helped by the erosion of traditional forms of adult solidarity. Impotent and atomised, too many communities are communities in name only, cohered by the state rather than informally, by people who live there. And social workers do indeed seem to be finding it difficult to see the genuine child abuse for the proliferating suspicions of abuse.
But whatever the problems we as a society face, one thing is certain: peddlers of ‘rhetoric about a broken society’ will not provide the solution.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Previously on spiked
Tim Black deplored how the case of Baby P was taken as evidence that Britain has a murderous ‘underclass’. Elsewhere, he looked at how ChildLine and the NSPCC dealt with the Vanessa George case. David Clements warned of the negative consequences of ever-earlier state interventions in family life. Jennie Bristow looked at Britain’s problems in her review of the book Contemporary Social Evils. Or read more at spiked issue Anti-social behaviour.
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