Not the happiest of days

Eddie Ford comments on Britain's 'youth crisis' and says: stop criminalising youth

After a recent spate of shootings, which saw the killing of three teenagers in south London, there has been intense debate - and agonising - about the plight of youth in 'cool Britannia'. And, of course, this discussion has been given extra heat by a damning Unicef report which concludes that growing up in the UK is a less than happy experience for many children and teenagers.

Obviously, there was wide and genuine distress at the teenage slayings - two of them actually shot in their own homes. Particularly shocking, and gaining the most press attention, was the circumstances surrounding the murder of 15-year-old Billy Cox from Clapham. This saw his 12-year-old sister returning home from school with a friend only to be greeted with a loud bang - and then to be confronted with her brother's bleeding body. Her friend frantically attempted to administer first aid, the paramedics were called, but Billy was pronounced dead at the scene. As a sorry coda to the entire wretched incident, police later confirmed that Billy had in fact being electronically tagged after receiving a supervision order last December for burglary.

Quite predictably, the instinctive response to this flurry of shootings was authoritarian. Hence, and hardly reassuringly for some, armed police officers stepped up their presence on the streets of London. Naturally, Blair himself went into auto-populist mode - declaring that he wanted to lower the age at which a mandatory five-year jail term for gun possession is incurred from 21 to 17.

Then in righteous remarks to the BBC, Blair told us that he would like to criminalise "gang membership" per se and would favour the introduction of more 'Big Brotherish', US-style surveillance of the houses of people suspected of possessing or trading in guns. There are also children as young as six, claimed Blair, who "require intervention from the authorities" to stop them getting involved in gangs and gun crime - adding that "specific measures" were needed for a "specific number of families who are just outside the mainstream".

Some or all of these measures might eventually end up being incorporated into the Violent Crime Reduction Act, which has already being approved by parliament and is due to come into effect at the end of the year - though the government would dearly love to see all these anti-crime measures and proposals become law as early as April.

Furthermore, ratcheting up his law-and-order credentials still more, Blair hosted a gun crime 'summit' at Downing Street, which consisted of 25 people, including home secretary John Reid and the now compulsory clutch of 'community leaders'. At this meeting, Blair made clear his belief that the law needs to be toughened up yet again, while others - such as pastor Nins Obunge of the Peace Alliance, a churches group - expressed fears about the emergence in Britain of a generation of "urban child soldiers". Still, perhaps the extra funding promised by Blair and earmarked for the Peace Alliance and supine 'community' organisations like it will alleviate some of Obunge's anxieties.

But, whatever the case, straight after the Downing Street summit, the Peace Alliance and other black christian groups organised a 'peace walk' from Peckham Square to Windrush Square in Brixton. Obviously, this torch-lit event was enthusiastically supported by Downing Street, the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, and Ken Livingstone - to name just a few determined to demonstrate their statesmanlike unrighteousness. Doing the media rounds, as always, Lee Jasper - currently the very well remunerated director of policing for the mayor of London's office and chair of the Operation Trident independent advisory group into black gun crime in London. Jasper urged the 'black community' to "support the police" and "face the reality that we have a serious problem with a small minority of our young people".

Here, in some senses, we have the Blairite 'communitarian' (remember that?) ideal in action, with faith groups taking an increased role in society - preaching social peace, respect for your elders and, of course, even more respect for the forces of law and order.

Alongside earnest get-togethers and even more earnest 'peace walks', it is worth noting that Tony Blair's namesake at the Met announced that its specialist crime directorate was setting up a new 'task force' in order to look tough and on top of the situation - and will run in parallel with the ongoing Operation Trident. In reality the primary function of Trident is not to 'fight crime', but to present yet another way in which to coopt 'community leaders' into the establishment and in turn help police their own communities on behalf of the state bureaucracy, especially on the ideologically front. Self-evidently, Ian Blair's putative task force will only act to help cement this very holy 'alliance'.

Gendarmes on the streets, gendarmes in the church or mosque - then things will be all right again. Or so we are meant to believe.

Well, what is really going on the streets of south London and elsewhere? As usual, the newly published home office statistics present a mixed picture. The number of people injured by firearms in England and Wales has more than doubled since 1998, but the number of people actually killed in 2005-06 fell by more than a third, from 78 to 50. There were 11,084 recorded firearms crimes in 2005-06 - up 0.12% on the previous year. London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands account for 54% of all recorded incidents.

Overall then, if the official government figures are to be relied upon, there seems to have been an undramatic but still very real increase in 'gun culture' - especially amongst teenagers and young adults.

Some, it almost goes without saying, have taken their reactionary cue from recent events. Extremely luridly, but true to form, Norman Brennan - director of the 'get tough' and stridently anti-liberal Victims of Crime Trust - fulminated about how "youngsters" were "walking assassins" who "live by the gun and die by the gun". Then we had the Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, telling parliament, and us, that "we need more police" and "more effective policing".


Communists will be not joining the pro-police, anti-youth chorus coming from the likes of Blair, Brennan and Campbell. No, we do not believe that young adults in the UK are all "walking assassins" from whom we need round-the-clock police protection. Rather, and quite self-evidently, life for many of our youth in London, Manchester, West Midlands, etc is stressful, obscenely competitive and deeply alienating. Not the 'happiest days of your life' or an Enid Blyton wonderland of ever sunny innocence and harmless fun.

Unsurprisingly then, for some of those experiencing daily, grinding inequality and deprivation - both economic and spiritual - the 'gun culture' helps to fill the gap. It provides 'respect' and a purpose to life - and, if you are lucky or competent enough, some desperately needed cash.

In this respect, Claudia Webbe - vice-chair of an independent advisory group to Operation Trident - has not untruthfully pointed out how "guns have gone from the domain of the crack cocaine dealers to now being an everyday fashionable accessory that young people want to be seen with". For Webbe, the allure of guns and the attendant gangster culture is what is "motivating" a significant number of young people, "where a gun has become almost a status symbol demanding respect and power". Deeply alienated by life on run-down council estates, a significant number of youth are looking for what appears to be a more creative and dynamic option.

This rather dismaying picture of what constitutes 'youth culture' in many parts of the country seems to be amply confirmed by a recent Unicef study of childhood as experienced in 21 countries. Based on international polling of the actual children and young people themselves, Unicef's Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries was the first study of childhood across the world's industrialised nations - so hence constitutes a serious investigation which it would be foolish to ignore.

To compile the study, Unicef looked at 40 indicators from the years 2000-03 which centred on six different areas - material well-being; health and safety; educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and the young people's own perceptions of their well-being.

Essentially, the report delivers a damning verdict on both the UK and the United States - the countries seen as providing the worst environments for children. Indeed, the UK came rock bottom of the Unicef 'poll' - surely something to be proud of - with the US trailing just behind. By contrast, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries come out as societies that supply the most supportive and nourishing environments for the upbringing and upkeep of children - although a more realistic assessment would be that their societies are less alienating. One of the report's joint authors bluntly told the BBC's Today programme that under-investment and a "dog-eat-dog" society were to blame for Britain's poor performance.

Thus children growing up in the UK suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are in general exposed to more risks associated with alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in the other "rich countries".

According to the Unicef study, the reasons for this bifurcation between the UK/US and the Netherlands/Scandinavia are varied. For instance, the UK just loves to incarcerate young people - surely a crude and bankrupt approach. And then there are the contrasting educational systems. While the UK is insanely, and increasingly, competitive, the educational set-up in Finland, Norway, etc does not suffer so much from the tendency to brand under-performing pupils as 'failures'. Or, in other words, these countries have a broadly more patient and tolerant approach to education - unlike the UK regime of constant exams, testing and grading (or 'increasing performance' and 'raising standards', as the educrats like to call it). Therefore pupils in the 'nicer' countries have a greater tendency to come out of the educational system feeling more confident - not, as in the UK, just filled with loathing and hopelessness.

Other aspects of UK life, as highlighted by Unicef, include the observation that children were less likely to eat the main meal of the day with parents - or with anybody else, for that matter. We also had the much debated - and contested - statistic that barely 40% of over-11s found their peers to be "kind and helpful" - the worst score in the developed world. The equivalent figure for the Netherlands and all the Scandinavian countries is over 70%.

In conclusion, Unicef showed British children were the most likely to feel left out, awkward, unloved and lonely. Not a happy picture. Of course, various government officials pooh-poohed Unicef's findings, claiming that the data was "out of date" and did not reflect the "recent improvements" for children in the UK - like the fall in teenage pregnancies or the reduced number of children now living in workless households. But despite that, the Unicef has more than a ring of truth to it.

Armed people

So - remembering the terrible fate that befell Billy Cox and others - what is our attitude specifically towards guns and gun controls? Well, shocking though it may seem to many - including some who are widely seen to constitute the far left - communists do not support government and bourgeois-orchestrated campaigns to ban or crack down on guns. So, it is safe to assume, communists will not be invited to any summits on gun crime - nor in the future will we be organising saintly 'peace walks'.

No, we are not indifferent to what happened to Billy Cox - nothing could be further from the truth. And, no, we do not think it is a good thing that all sort of dubious and callous individuals - including gangsters and professional criminals - are in possession of weapons. Nor is it the case - as has been moronically and disingenuously suggested by some of our critics - that communists would like nothing more than to loiter outside Tesco's freely distributing AK47s to anyone who wants one. Or picket the south London 'peace march' with placards shouting, 'Give violence a chance'.

However - as an integral part of our programme - communists stand for the arming of the people. That means a popular militia with elected officers and working class discipline. Weapons training should be a universal right for all - not the preserve of either the bourgeois armed forces or criminal gangsters. That is part of our aim to replace the bourgeois state and its standing army. To believe that this can be achieved by noble, non-violent sentiment alone is to lapse into utopianism.

After all, it is not for nothing that the bourgeois state wants to retain its monopoly over weapons - and hence violence. To own a gun officially, the state has to decide in its boundless wisdom that you are a 'fit and proper' person. But oddly enough, as those with long memories will easily recall, Gerry Adams was (still is?) consistently refused a gun licence, yet the perpetrator of the horrific 1996 Dunblane massacre, Thomas Hamilton - a man already known for his erratic and unstable behaviour - was granted one. Very rational, that one.

And it goes without saying that the state is free to retain and employ its weapons - including those of mass destruction. The extremely violent invasion and occupation of Iraq, presumably, represents an 'acceptable level of violence' - while occasional shootings in south London do not. But, then again, we all know that the imperialist ruling class is a 'fit and proper' class to rule over us, don't we?

However, the UK left has a gruesome history of economistic social pacifism - all part of its general desire to be viewed as 'respectable'. We graphically saw this after the Dunblane murders, where the Pavlovian response of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, for example, was to supinely tail the Snowdrop campaign to ban handguns and in general argue for greater 'local authority control' over weapons. In other words, it capitulated to bourgeois common sense in its indecent haste to be part of the mainstream discourse (or hue and cry).

Why did SPEW do this? Quite simple really. Weapons, guns and violence are bad things - right? Socialists are against bad things - right? Therefore we do not want anything to do with guns or weapons. Instead, leave them in the capable hands of the bourgeois state. Here was SPEW's miserable message.

Therefore, given such precedents, we should not in the least be surprised that Tommy Sheridan (currently leader of the pale-pink nationalist Solidarity) has proposed legislation which would ban airguns - SPEW's old line, but with a vengeance. Under Sheridan's putative bill, all airguns would have to be securely stored either in gun clubs or by the local authorities for 'pest control' purposes - and, no, regrettably that does not mean for the purpose of shooting Scottish landowners or scaring off obdurate fox-hunters.

So, if comrade Sheridan gets his way - as he tends to in his new party - anyone privately keeping a airgun would therefore be committing a criminal act. His move is apparently in response to recent tragic incidents involving airguns - such as the killing of two-year-old Andrew Morton, who in 2005 was shot near his home in Easterhouse, Glasgow.

But sounding more and more like a bourgeois politician - obsessed with chasing popularity and political easy money - Sheridan has claimed that more than eight in 10 people in Scotland would back such a ban (he may well be right). Additionally, and rather distastefully, Sheridan has made a big fuss about the fact that - rather unsurprisingly - the mother of Andrew Morton supports his Blair-like proposal. Yet another example of shameless opportunism and cretinous reformism from the 'far left'.

As for the Socialist Workers Party, the last two issues of Socialist Worker have carried four separate articles on gun crime - yet managed, very diplomatically, to avoid coming out with any formal or explicit political stance that could embarrass or 'tie down' the SWP big-wigs. Isn't it great not having a programme?

Rather, in the time-honoured Socialist Worker tradition, we have anodyne vox pop talks with Janet Noble - a "south London mother of three and Unison union activist" - and Kerstie, who "lives on the Press Road estate in north west London" - both of whom are not SWP supporters or members, of course (February 24).

Just a bit more interestingly, though not by much, in the same issue we also have Albert, who "works with young people in south London and is a former activist with Panther UK". The latter was set up by the old Militant Tendency as part of its nakedly opportunist accommodation - and sharp about-turn - to black separatism (almost inevitably, Panther UK broke away from the mother organisation amid rancorous accusations of white domination and racism).

Albert complains that Diane Abbot, Lee Jasper and Trevor Phillips - all of whom "at one level or another", apparently, "used to oppose capitalism" - now "all seem to agree that being a small-time business person and getting rich should be the aspiration of young black people today". But, Albert continues, "the gang culture that they hate so much is just another form of small business" - when what we need, he ventures, is an "alternative moral value system that has nothing to do with capitalism".

Yes, what some of what Albert says is quite true - but nowhere in Socialist Worker are we informed as to what political position the 'revolutionary Marxist' SWP thinks we should adopt towards the police force and guns. Support the police crackdown or not, comrades? The people armed or not?

Communist approach

Then there is our general communist approach to youth. We utterly oppose any such move to criminalise "gang membership", as this would amount to a de facto war on youth as a whole. After all, perhaps the majority of teenagers have at one stage or another been a member of a 'gang' - ie, have found confidence and security in the company of others or simply hung about with friends. Communists are unequivocally antagonistic to Blair's 'respect' agenda - with its baby asbos ('basbos'), exclusion zones, compulsory residential courses for parents deemed errant, CCTV-monitored special units for repeat-offender families, and all the rest of that reactionary, anti-human garbage.

When it comes to childcare provision, the UK state is criminally spendthrift. If you are well-off or rich - great, the best is available to you. But if you are poor - then forget it: just be happy with what you are given. Illuminatingly, the Daycare Trust - a charity which aims to "promote high quality affordable childcare for all" (www.daycaretrust.org.uk) - recently estimated that a full-time childcare place can cost more than sending a child to Eton.

Youth are at the sharp end of Britain's capitalist decline. In general, young workers are not protected by trade union membership - and they have to make do with a reduced 'minimum wage', which is pitiful to begin with. Homelessness and unemployment are greatly disproportionate amongst the young. As for the 'training' offered up on the various official schemes, they are at best a joke - more designed to massage government statistics than equip youth with the skills of the future.

Youth are fawned upon by the advertisers and market men - yet more often than not they are blamed for social decay and violence on our streets. If truth be told, the capitalist system is mainly interested in youth as consumers of the latest fad. In pursuit of the cash nexus, every other human attribute, especially artistic talent, is judged purely in terms of its ability to generate (often artificial) needs. Yes, obviously, there are many who reject these twisted values - but sometimes this despairing rejection leads to forms of nihilism - which, in a perverse irony, is itself often turned into a commodity by capitalism.

To combat this woeful situation, the CPGB's Draft programme sets out the following demands: