Rotherham: A systemic failure
The Rotherham sexual abuse scandal reveals profound weaknesses in bourgeois society’s treatment of vulnerable people, writes Paul Demarty
Responses to Alexis Jay’s report into sexual abuse of pubescent girls in Rotherham have been united, at least, on one point - that what is documented therein is appalling.
A ‘conservative’ estimate of 1,400 victims has grabbed headlines: a quite astonishing number for a town of some 280,000 people in total. Investigative journalists from The Times, who dug a little deeper into the affair after the conviction of five men for organised sexual exploitation in 2010, found a further element of horror: the role of relevant authorities was at best indifferent and more commonly was actually covering up abuse.
Britain has been gifted a particularly ridiculous pantomime villain from this angle: Shaun Wright, the police and crime commissioner (PCC) for South Yorkshire - and the evidently worthless head of child safety on Rotherham council from 2005 to 2010. Something of a study in what a long career in municipal politics does to your sense of shame, Wright is stubbornly refusing to budge from the post he was elected to on the no doubt fervent wishes of, er, 7.5% of eligible voters (an impressive mandate indeed).
He has been abandoned by the Labour Party and even his deputy - if he persists in this behaviour, we must fear for his personal safety. Alas, we must wait for his ego to wise up, since one of the many ridiculous features of Cameron’s PCC legislation is simply that there is no way to sack such idiots.
In any case, the story is bigger than Wright, who is merely a particularly egregious example of the inept, egotistical specimens bred in modern Britain’s rotten boroughs. Those who are united on his degeneracy, however, and the horrible nature of the crimes he apparently did nothing to prevent, disagree violently on the causes. It is precisely this disagreement that gives the affair its interest for us - the world, after all, is full enough of horrors. We see before us bourgeois society incandescent that it has failed 1,400 young women - ‘conservatively’ speaking; and its various limbs are all blaming each other.
The angle that has dominated the coverage is, of course, the ethnic origins of the perpetrators - according to the report, and convictions thus far, they are in the main of British Pakistani cultural background. One of the matters picked up by The Times from documents it unearthed was a reluctance to investigate seriously in deference to ‘diversity’ issues. For much of the rightwing press (and now home secretary Theresa May), this seems to be a case of political correctness having gone well and truly mad.
On closer examination, the notion that there is a culturally specific feature of British Pakistani or Muslim culture that leads its sons to cajole and intimidate white teenagers into sex, where they do not simply violently rape them, falls down. For one, we have in recent years also seen the Catholic church exposed for systematically covering up for paedophiles in its clergy; there are, in any case, an awful lot of rapes across society as a whole. If some men found in Islam an excuse to believe that these girls ‘had it coming’, then it is only one excuse among depressingly many for such behaviour.
On top of that, we have the plain evidence that eight men were tried, and five convicted, for such offences in 2010 - without causing race riots in South Yorkshire. Why did it take two years of investigative journalism to bring anything else to light?
It is undeniably true that the public sector - and, indeed, most of the private sector - labours under a bureaucratically imposed official liberalism, which stamps down hard on real or perceived racism, sexism and so on. We must, however, understand how this functions. The list of ‘protected categories’ of people is ever-expanding, and leads inevitably to contradictions. Indeed, the Rotherham affair, at face value, places women and vulnerable teenagers on one side, against ethnic minorities on the other. On the far left, such awkward encounters are governed by the rubric of ‘intersectionality’, and thus lead to screaming rows and political paralysis. In the grey, grubby world of local politics, it is a godsend - for it allows people to arbitrarily exercise their limited power in whatever way suits them best.
Thus, we cannot but be struck by how the multiple, systemic failures on show align with the perverse incentives offered to the various culprits. The police have to meet targets for dealing with reported crime; thus they have an incentive to minimise what actually gets reported. Many victims were arrested themselves, for being drunk under age. Social workers, almost universally well-meaning, grow cynical under the burden of hundreds of cases; a girl absconding, apparently into prostitution, may prick the conscience, but it also lightens the load. As for local politicians, in a municipality as inevitably Labour-controlled as the August bank holiday is rainy, their cynicism is self-explanatory.
Now that there are 1,400 of them, the victims loom large - but when their ordeals began they were merely individuals, dribbling through an indifferent world - they were nothing special, and nothing to sacrifice a good career over. A Times columnist seized on a symptomatic moment in television coverage: “Why did the Rotherham authorities do nothing, a TV reporter asked a mother whose daughter was sexually exploited from the age of 12. ‘Because,’ she replied, ‘they thought they were dirty little slags’.”1
On this point, it would appear, the perpetrators and the authorities were of one mind. It was to be expected that young women from this particular social origin (working class, from hard-hit rustbelt communities) had a lack of respect for their own bodies, and that was not a good thing (obviously), but what can one do?
While the right pins the blame on ‘political correctness’, the liberal left is more likely to call for more resources for social care, which is battered like everything else under the Tory government. Left Unity’s Felicity Dowling offers a variant of this view: “This scandal is a further entry to add to Hillsborough and Orgreave in South Yorkshire police’s annals of failure. We call for fully funded children’s services in every local authority with good professional development and trade union representation.”2
Comrade Dowling and the liberals, however, offer a very top-heavy solution, which is in fact no solution at all. The social care system is predicated on denying its charges any agency in their own lives; and, while children and young teenagers are more or less necessarily dependent on adults, the process of ‘coming of age’ is about becoming able to take control over one’s own life. The best-funded, most efficient social care system in the world, if it were to be based on the current model, would be stuck in the same rut as the threadbare version around today.
That rut has the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the system views those in its care as damaged beyond repair; thus its interventions are heavy-handed and alienating. When people disappear from the system - either voluntarily or in the more disturbing circumstances described in Jay’s report - it serves to justify the idea that agency must be withheld from vulnerable young people, and also the self-justifying view that those who abscond cannot be saved from themselves.
Many individuals in society get severely damaged early on in the course of their lives: indeed, that is one of the compelling reasons for getting rid of capitalism. It is the cruel logic of the system that led Thatcher and her successors to claw back the gains of the working class, to devastate strongholds of the organised working class and thus loosen the social fabric. It is hardly surprising either that there are lost souls, or those that would prey on them. We reject, rather, the notion that this is a permanent state of affairs, that such people of interest to social workers should remain trapped in that condition.
Comrade Dowling is of particular interest here, since she is the main motivator for LU’s proposed ‘safe spaces’ policy, which would write the local authority ‘safeguarding’ dogma more or less directly into the organisation’s constitution. It is disappointing, but hardly surprising, that the closest she comes to mentioning the problem is to “call for children’s voices to be heard in all services”. ‘Your voice will be heard’ deserves its reputation as a vacuous cliché that generally means the exact opposite, and this is surely no different. Subject to vile abuse they may have been, but most of the victims in Rotherham were teenagers; if you insist on treating them as children, then by the same token they will be, as the saying goes, seen and not heard.
1. The Times August 30.