Huddersfield and the causes of crime
There is more at stake than criminal justice in the latest grooming scandal, argues Paul Demarty
So something like justice finally comes for 15 women sexually exploited and raped as minors by a group of 20 men in Huddersfield.
There is, with stories like this one, a sense of history repeating itself, as tragedy after tragedy. It does not seem so very long ago that I wrote in these pages about Alexis Jay’s report on similar crimes and systemic failures in Rotherham.1 While the numbers involved appear to be different - in the former case, it was estimated that a hundred times as many women had been abused - this is in part a matter of the difference between the criminal standard of proof and the bulk estimation used by the heads of official inquiries.
The discussion surrounding the Huddersfield case leaves one, regrettably, with the sense that nothing has been learned - perhaps that, within the epistemic structure that governs our attitude to the sexual exploitation of the vulnerable, that nothing can be learned. It will barely need to be mentioned that commentary on the issue has focused on the ethnic background of the perpetrators, in this case and in others. This time around, things were even more highly charged, as Tommy Robinson - enjoying a resurgence of notoriety after a quiet couple of years - got himself packed off to jail for contempt of court for ranting off about Muslim paedophiles. He is out now, although not out of the woods, with further charges to be considered.
Any hope - of which there was none anyway - of skirting around the strong association of Muslims of Asian backgrounds and crimes such as these was thus killed off within minutes. It is a little unfortunate in this case, since the purported ringleader - Amere Singh Dhaliwal - is not Muslim, but Sikh. Tommy Robinson does not seem like the sort of person overly interested in the difference between one sort of bearded, brown-skinned man and another, however. Somewhat more ‘sensitive’ to the fine details was Sajid Javid, the home secretary, who got in a certain amount of bother from people in the do-gooding sector by describing the criminals as “Asian paedophiles” and assuring us that there would be “no no-go areas” in subsequent investigations - referring to an inquiry he has set up into the nature of these grooming gangs.
The latter phrase is worth picking up on, for two reasons. One is its studied ambiguity. It seems to refer to the recurring idea that the relevant authorities are reluctant to investigate cases like this for fear of accusations of racism; but it is also the phrase used by far-right ideologues to claim that whole areas of major western cities have become ‘Muslim territory’, where others fear to tread. Though Javid is not the obvious first choice to try and outdo Tommy Robinson in these matters, he seems happy to toot on this particular dog-whistle. The home office really seems to bring it out in people.
The other reason is that it is obviously, in the wider context of Javid’s Twitter ramblings, not true. What he argues here is that we are dealing with the depraved acts of evil individuals. We must lock them all up. We must perhaps examine the reasons why they became evil in the first place. That is the whole of the matter, so far as Sajid is concerned. Zubaida Haque of the Runnymede Trust was not impressed by this reasoning:
Racialising this crime and focusing on the ethnicity of the sexual predators has done little to address why and how these victims were vulnerable to the prey [sic] of these sexual predators.
It’s extraordinary that Sajid Javid set up an inquiry to look at why Asian men were more likely to be in CSE [child sexual exploitation] grooming gangs when his priority all the time should have been why and how victims were vulnerable and where safeguards had failed.2
So far as it goes, Haque’s reasoning is sound, with one exception. It is not at all “extraordinary” that Javid would act in the way that he has, for he is a Tory. The essence of Toryism is that inequalities - of wealth, and of virtue - are natural and inherent. When one inquires into the ‘causes of crime’, one genuinely must not look too closely, for it really is ultimately a matter of taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, and thorough economic-sociological aetiologies of crimes risk giving the fickle mob an excuse to avoid their responsibilities. If Javid’s inquiry into ‘Asian paedophiles’ (for that is what it is, in substance) does its job, it will shame the patriarchs of the community into shopping people into the police; and life will go on.
Before his current stint at the home office, of course, Javid was sitting pretty as communities secretary - the Newspeaky name for the job that involves shitting all over local authorities. That puts him, in reality, uncomfortably close to social care failures, such as are exposed by these periodic failures. The idea that social services ‘should have done more’, as if it were a matter - in the argot of football commentators and Thatcherite blowhards alike - of ‘wanting it enough’, is a tremendous lie, whose untruth consists in the nauseating antics of communities secretaries past and present. Toryism is not at all reconciled to the idea of municipal government tout court, which seems rather to allow oiks to threaten the smooth running of the ship of state. The ‘starve the beast’ approach actually taken in the last 40 years, including under Labour, is directly implicated in denying people the ability to manage their own communities and look after their own vulnerable children, teenagers and adults.
For if it is easy - rather too easy - to find the pictures of the Huddersfield perpetrators familiar, how much more so their victims? Their fate indeed is so familiar to have passed into cliché - these ‘poor young women’ from ‘troubled backgrounds’, ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’, ‘falling through the cracks’ … As Haque points out, the cracks have gotten an awful lot larger; and, as in Rotherham, an uncomfortable light has been shone on the limits of compassion imposed on social workers. With a caseload that simply does not allow the full exercise of the charitable intentions that people typically bring in to that profession, the result can be, at best, an inability to act and, at worst, a guilty relief, when young women abscond into the tender affections of an Amere Singh Dhaliwal.
We scattered a lot of scare quotes in the last paragraph, and it is here that we must go further than the likes of Haque. For there is an assumption that the full and adequate response is for the proper funding of social services of various kinds and the treating of the professionals who provide them as more than just red ink in the budget. Yet at this level we are still missing - except as victims and objects of pity - the women who suffered. There is a tacit assumption, behind all the chest-beating, that victimhood is a life sentence; that, having found themselves in the care system or foster homes or otherwise ripped out of the family scene, vulnerable young people are condemned to being the objects of others’ intentions, be they rapacious or benevolent.
The paradox is that this can make the problem worse. It is the inequality of power relations in class society that makes these problems so intractable: but a frozen model of perpetual ‘vulnerable adulthood’ merely invents a new means by which people can be alienated from control of their own lives. Restoring people who have been genuinely damaged is no trivial matter that can be hand-waved away, and it is quite genuinely reprehensible that - beyond the occasional conference-season bromide - Tories have nothing to offer at all except a dedication to making it harder. Yet, with any other goal in mind than the full fruition of individuality, ‘safeguarding’ must become its own kind of tyranny, from which even very much damaged individuals must flee to satisfy their very humanity.
There has been a recent ‘political correctness’ drive to rebrand those who suffer from awful, especially sexual, crimes as ‘survivors’ rather than victims - we presume because such rebranding is more upbeat and hopeful. As with all such initiatives, the problem is the confusion of verbal semantics with social reality, and precisely the discussion of the experiences of ‘survivors’ often characterises them as so fragile and vulnerable that we might almost imagine that the new term is being used ironically. For our part, we do not want people to glob along from their first foster home through a denuded life as an object of bureaucratic goodwill, perishing at last as a suitably vulnerable pensioner, but to truly overcome their misfortunes.
As long as the likes of Sajid Javid administer the state, however, the former is the very best that can be hoped for - and hoped for in vain.
1. ‘Rotherham: a systemic failure’ Weekly Worker September 4 2014.