Rehabilitation not revenge

James Turley takes on the reactionaries whipping up hysteria over the age of criminal responsibility

Ever on the lookout for a soft target, the forces of reaction in Britain have recently directed their fire against ... children.

The issue is the proper age of criminal responsibility - at what point is an individual legally considered fit for prosecution in a full criminal court? One might perhaps have expected this to be 18, after which an individual is formally an adult, and allowed to vote; or perhaps it comes when you are allowed to take charge of your sex life - 16. Alas, no; the absurd and shocking truth is that, at the present time, a child of 10 is potentially subject to the same legal proceedings as his or her own parents in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is set even lower - only eight years. (I for one will be surprised if anyone has managed to raise an eight-year-old child to have a full understanding of Scottish law; concerned parents ought to act now.)

The key case in recent history to test the absurd limits of this law was the murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old who was kidnapped and tortured to death by two boys of 10 in 1993, his body dumped on a railway line. The press hysteria conjured up around it was almost as barbaric as the crime itself - The Sun and other reactionary rags indulged in eye-popping invective against the killers, who were assumed to be irredeemably evil. All this was in the name of ‘the children’ - just not these children, of course. They were duly tried in a full adult court and found guilty.

At that point, however, their troubles had only begun - the court revealed their identities and pictures, which meant their families had to be resettled under new identities after receiving death threats; the boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, found themselves at the wrong end of an obscene bidding war over their sentences. The insidious Tory grandee, Michael Howard, won the wooden spoon in this regard - then home secretary, he gave in to a campaign by The Sun to get their sentences extended to 15 years. The shit-storm inevitably reached other areas of gutter press endeavour; attempts to pin the blame on ‘video nasties’ (in particular the unremarkable horror threequel Child’s play 3) were well in evidence, leading one sensible copper to remark: “If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The railway children” (The Guardian March 21 1999).

Little Jamie Bulger’s ghost has proven troublesome to exorcise. It was summoned again recently when it was revealed that Venables had been returned to custody after breaching his release agreement. There was fervid speculation about exactly what he had done; the letter of the law did not narrow it down at all, for a start. The Mirror claimed he had done little more than get drunk and rowdy at football matches; Jack Straw later confirmed that there were “very serious allegations” involved, but to his credit has not revealed anything else, much to the consternation of a bloodthirsty gutter press.

That is the frame for the latest controversies around criminal responsibility. The incoming children’s commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, ignited the furore by declaring in an interview with The Times that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised at least to 12 (March 13). Her Scottish counterpart soon followed suit. The howls of outrage from the reactionary press at this point almost write themselves; leading the charge was the mother of James Bulger, Denise Fergus, who claimed that Atkinson’s comments were “insensitive” (a criticism, one notes, that she never levelled at those whose death threats forced the perpetrators’ families to leave their lives behind - sensitivity itself, of course).

Displaying its usual lack of spine, the Labour government has already caved in to all this - the justice ministry has flatly rejected Atkinson’s advice. “It is not in the interests of justice, of victims, or the young people themselves, to prevent serious offending being challenged,” opined a spokesperson. Obviously the best way to challenge ‘serious offending’ is to subject children to traumatic legal proceedings. Frankly, after the fracas around sacked government drugs advisor David Nutt, one wonders why the government bothers to appoint all these people. The only ‘advice’ Downing Street will take - especially in election season - is from the likes of the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre.

It is impossible to discuss the deleterious political effects of all this without dealing with the ideological identifications involved. There is no necessary reason why, once in a while, the establishment should not decide to act rationally; though he may never convince Denise Fergus, Jack Straw may well be able to persuade people at large that banging up children of 10 is not in the interests of justice. There is a ready electoral audience, meanwhile, for any government willing to take David Nutt’s advice and decriminalise ‘soft’ drugs.

What makes it impossible even for New Labour - some of them originated on the left and would still identify themselves as ‘progressive’ at least - to make an elementary stand against a vicious and idiotic piece of legislation is in part a function of its own political strategy, which is that of ‘triangulation’ - ie, aim for a particular section of the electorate in swing constituencies who it is assumed are effectively ‘soft Tories’. Concessions should be made to these people - one or two million frightened petty bourgeois, in effect, upon whose shoulders the undemocratic British political system has laid the burden of picking between prospective governments.

The assumption that this sector tends towards the Tories is correct - after all, the Tories have a substantially better electoral record than any other party in British history, including the rather shorter history of universal suffrage. Why is this the case? The petty bourgeois is in a peculiarly unstable position in capitalist society. The long-term tendency is for capital to condense into ever bigger apparatuses - the great transnational giants, integrated with the state, are emblematic. That has the necessary corollary that smaller capitals get swept aside or eaten up. Small grocers have to work in their shop for the full working week; their family will be conscripted into this labour where possible. Despite this graft, the threat of a new Tesco within driving distance always looms. Under conditions of crisis, with the tightening of credit, all this is obviously much more acute.

What goes for the grocer goes also for the self-employed builder or plumber - contracts are desperately short when people can no longer buy houses. Add to that general political disenfranchisement and the bureaucratic interference of the state, and there is a lot of resentment to exploit.

It is not only the petty bourgeois, however; the crisis of the 1970s ushered in the decimation of industrial communities around Britain over the next two decades. Years of mass unemployment and underemployment has seen the social fabric disintegrate. Workers - even when they find work - are atomised. (We have, of course, only begun to see the consequences of the present crash, with further waves of deproletarianisation possible.)

Into this perpetual chaos steps reactionary ideology, with a whole political and economic apparatus behind it. Its mission is to direct that discontent. Immigrants, sexual deviants, child abusers, child killers - you have a free choice of candidates for the cause of all your misery, and in an average edition of the Daily Mail you can have them all together. The only one you cannot have is the real one - the capitalist system.

The child is a particularly potent image here. It can be built up into a state of absolute innocence, moral and sexual, and those who interfere with either - physical and sexual abusers - are guilty of a crime against humanity itself. (These crimes are horrendous, of course, but not so remarkable in a world of mass starvation and bloodshed.)

Of course, children are not ‘little angels’ at all. They are capricious and possessive, and capable of great cruelty. So when like Venables and Thompson they irretrievably fail to live up to the demand of total innocence, they are turned into demons. Britain is awash with scare stories about young yobs and playground bullies; they are all variants of the Jamie Bulger good kid/evil kid narrative. To make rational objections to this schizophrenic attitude is, in a sense, impossible; all objections are anticipated by rightwing anti-intellectualism.

So it is that The Sun and the like have successfully and continually conscripted substantial sections of public opinion into what can only be described as a nihilistic quest for revenge. It serves the cynical shifting of power around Westminster very well; it does not serve the battered communities from which these horror stories often arise at all.

Communists oppose any notion of justice based on retribution. We are not concerned to make a carnival of punishment, but to make sure crimes do not happen, and that when they do, that criminals are detained as befits the public good. That means making every effort to rehabilitate those who have posed a danger, so they too can contribute positively to human society. In the case of child offenders, it is surely more possible rather than less to do so.

It goes without saying that what is on the table right now - a rise in the age of criminal responsibility to 12, and with it at least an implicit denunciation of the Jamie Bulger farce - is drastically insufficient (and still too radical for New Labour, apparently). Exactly what happens on every child’s 12th birthday that gives them the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? We argue that, if someone is old enough to be held responsible for legal decisions, the same is true of political decisions. The age of criminal responsibility - like all other rights and responsibilities of adulthood - should be set at the voting age. Arbitrary though it is in many respects, that age should be 16.

This can only be a small part of a total reconstruction of the legal system. As long as capitalism exists, meanwhile, there will always be crime - property is nine-tenths of the law, and makes ‘criminals’ out of millions. Beyond that, the anarchy of the market, and its attendant social dislocation, results in more gruesome crimes than petty theft. None of this can be solved by looking backwards, to an imaginary past free of social friction. Communists must win the argument for building a better future, starting with the overthrow of the alienating system of capitalism.