The Sunday Times

April 1st, 2012

Hands up, all those who voted for welfare queens and kid gangsters

Looking at photographs last week of the young men who shot and paralysed a five-year-old girl in a shop in south London, and of the teenager who gunned down two young British men in Florida, and then reading the final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, I was reminded of the immortal words of Dr Heinz Kiosk: “We are all guilty.”

Dr Kiosk, a progressive psychoanalyst, was one of the great comic characters created by Michael Wharton under the pseudonym of Peter Simple in the 1960s and 1970s, to be laughed at by people such as me who despaired of the flabby left-liberalism of the time and the loss on all sides both of common sense and of conviction. Another unforgettable character was Dr Spacely-Trellis, the “go-ahead” Bishop of Bevindon and author of God the Humanist, who seems to live on today in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And laugh we did.

But perhaps Dr Kiosk ought now to be revisited. For these extremely bad boys are the product of our society — of our social dispensation. Whether or not we are all to blame for our current social arrangements, there is an obvious sense in which people get the societies they deserve.

Admittedly the rioters, the shooters and the delinquent, feral gangs are all to blame for their shocking crimes. But it is not just that they do bad things: many of them have become bad in themselves, brutalised like child soldiers by their bad lives. Who or what made them so bad? Who or what failed to make them good? This is Dr Kiosk territory, but perhaps he wasn’t entirely wrong.

We know, broadly, that “those to whom evil is done do evil in return”, in the words of WH Auden’s great poem September 1, 1939. Today we could extend that, thanks to recent developments in medical science. Neglect is not an active kind of evil, or at least it hasn’t been thought as such, in the way that physical and sexual abuse clearly are. But actually because of the damage neglect can do to a child’s cognitive and social development, from the first moments of its life, it is a very great evil. Those who are badly neglected will do evil in return as well.

Neglect is everywhere in inner-city ghettos. There are single mothers with many children by many fathers, some out of work, some addicts and many subjecting their children to chaos. Hovering round these unlucky children like predators are gangs, which terrorise them into joining and then make them take part in horrifying tests of loyalty, such as gang rape and shooting. If a child has escaped neglect and abuse at home, he or she can hardly escape the terror and corruption of the gangs. The south London estate where Damilola Taylor was killed was pretty much hell on earth.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company in London, takes in many children who are severely damaged, both by bad and neglectful families and by the gangs all around them. Commenting last week on the way we now vilify delinquent children and gang members, she argued that a small proportion of them are as severely damaged as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is according to brain research now being undertaken among Kids Company children. That is hardly surprising.

It is no longer controversial, though it was unheard of in the heyday of Dr Kiosk, that chronic maltreatment alters young people’s neural pathways; it weakens the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that restrains emotions and impulses. As a result, the limbic system and the even more primitive “reptilian brain” have more sway over a person’s behaviour. Hence the uncontrolled and unfeeling violence of some boys: their own lives have been wrecked and they go on to wreck others. And this is just the beginning of new scientific explanations of behaviour.

The ways in which children’s natures can be damaged are obviously immensely complex and varied. And the question is, however much one would like to prevent such damage, whether it is actually possible. Isn’t it quite likely, or rather, unavoidable, that there will always be a number of desperately dysfunctional people “bumping along the bottom”, to use the phrase from the riots panel’s final report last week? I once knew a boy for a couple of years who by chance was a typical example of this problem. He went to a rough local school and lived with his brother in a council flat, while his single mother lived in another one with her child by another man and “worked nights”; he barely knew how to eat with a knife and fork. He was bright, articulate and charismatic. But soon he got into bad company and he began terrorising other children, and then tortured at least one boy to stop him giving evidence about some thefts. Finally he was removed for a while under an Asbo, but he soon reappeared. This attractive, clever boy had turned into a monster — turned or been turned.

A few years ago I encountered the celebrated Charles Murray, who first wrote about the notion of an underclass in The Sunday Times. I told him this boy’s story and asked what could be done about such teenagers. Forget him, he said. It’s too late for him to change. We should concentrate on the very young.

Even if Murray is wrong, the cost of trying to turn around such people and their families, their housing, their schools and their streets is unimaginably high, even supposing it could actually be done. At the end of last year, in response to the riots, David Cameron announced a policy to spend £448m on helping 120,000 of the country’s worst problem families, via a network of troubleshooters. That works out at less than £4,000 a family. And in most cases it does not even include visits from the troubleshooters: their role would merely be to co-ordinate existing state agencies. This is just a tiny drop in a vast ocean of harm.

That harm comes from policies accepted by voters over decades — policies that have led to a vast increase in single parenthood, in welfare queens and feckless fathers in workless households, in chaotic families, in violent classrooms, in increasing illiteracy and innumeracy, in uncontrolled street gangs and in the creation of vast ghettos boiling with ethnic tension. That is what has damaged these guilty children.

And so Dr Kiosk has proved himself right at last. We are now all guilty. At least, all those who, in the spirit of the ultra-progressive Dr Kiosk, voted for the irresponsible policies that led directly to this social breakdown are guilty now.