Is it P for ‘prole’?
The death of one child is scandalously held up as evidence that Britain has a murderous ‘underclass’.
In Haringey, London, on 3 August 2007, after a short life of wilful neglect and horrific abuse at the hands of his mother, his stepfather, and their lodger, a 17-month-old child, who for legal reasons is known only as Baby P, was found dead in his cot. All three of his carers have since been convicted of ‘causing or allowing’ his death. It is desperately sad.
Unfortunately, the case of Baby P is being treated not as an isolated tragedy, but as evidence of something else, of a deeper social and moral malaise. As The Times (London) put it last week: ‘This is not just a story about Haringey, or the child protection system. It is a story about Britain today… Baby P was not killed by low-paid social workers, but at the hands of adults who were unimaginably depraved. These adults were part of Britain’s dependency community.’ (1)
With the emergence of each new dispiriting detail of the short, brutal life of Baby P, it’s as if the ground for an increasingly salacious moralism is being laid. For this ‘story’, as The Times has it, is not about those who were actually convicted but about what they represent; that is, to use pseudo-sociological parlance, a section of society trapped in a ‘cycle of deprivation and criminality’. In other words, the particular fate of Baby P has become the general story of the ‘underclass’.
The story of this underclass is certainly the tale adopted by the commentariat. Reflecting both on Baby P and the Shannon Matthews case, the commentator Camilla Cavendish stated: ‘The living hell of Britain’s underclass has forced its way into our consciousness several times in the past few weeks.’ (2) Elsewhere, the Independent on Sunday’s Sophie Heawood characterised the underclass as those ‘with subnormal intelligence levels, living in a world with no professional aspirations whatsoever, for generations, where criminality is normality’ (3).
Dangerous elisions are taking place here: by transferring the case of Baby P on to a wider debate about the behaviour of this putative group – a ‘community’, a class – there is a suggestion that abuse of the nature suffered by Baby P is endemic to a whole section of British society. Little wonder that the News of the World columnist Carol Malone took the logical step of wanting to wage war on ‘this underclass, this group, of deviants who’ve been allowed to take root in this country and who kill, maim and torture without guilt’. If we don’t do something, she concluded, ‘this underclass will become even more savage, more feral – and more innocents will die’ (4).
In the Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips continued this vein of social apocalypticism. Alluding to both Baby P and the case of a mother accused of murdering her two children in Manchester, she wrote: ‘These cases are not aberrations. They are the outcome of a process that has been going on for the past three decades and more, in which the fundamental values of civilised society have been systematically trashed and up-ended.’ (5)
Unfortunately for Phillips and friends, no amount of inflated, millenarian rhetoric can disguise the fact that cases such as Baby P are aberrations. The brutal abuse of a child by his parents is not a common occurrence. Contrary to the wet-nightmares of commentators like Phillips or Malone, filicide is not the norm, even, to use Cavendish’s words, in ‘postcodes [that] contain a devastating poverty of mind and spirit’ (6). In fact, given the universal revulsion at what Baby P’s nominal parents did (or did not do in his mother’s case), it’s probably fair to say that this tragic case is not the tip of some previously hidden iceberg of human depravity.
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Not that this will stop the dreadful, exploitative hyperbole. For a worldview that draws upon the notion of the underclass as the agent of social breakdown does not rely on empirical evidence. It relies on subjective impressions, of observers projecting their own fearful visions of societal collapse on to the most hopeless and helpess, be it an image of tattooed delinquency, BNP-voting sadism, or complacent, welfare-dependent single-mumdom. Even Charles Murray, the figure most responsible for thrusting the term ‘underclass’ into British political discourse in the 1990s, admitted that the available data was useless for proving or disproving the validity of ‘underclass’ as a social category (7). That, of course, doesn’t matter. The underclass is not an objective social phenomenon; it exists almost entirely in the eye of the angst-ridden beholder. Its substance is not tables, graphs, and correlations; it is anecdotage.
Consider Sophie Heawood’s arguments: admittedly she did acknowledge the less-than-scientific source of her conclusions about the underclass: ‘A friend of mine has worked in child protection for 20 years and says that yes, there is a definite underclass.’ (8) Well that that’s, then. Social scientists and policymakers can rest easy. Heawood doesn’t leave it there, however; instead she weaves a tapestry of abjection from her friend’s professional anecdotes. There’s the heroin-addict mother whose five kids were all addicts, too. There’s the parents who threw the baby at the wall to stop it crying. As repellent as such stories are, they tell us only about reprehensible individuals, not a whole, vague social group.
Of course, even Heawood knows that such cases are exceptional. Which is why she generalises by association, as if comparing cases of horrific child abuse with the lifestyles of Rotherham families in Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, as she does, somehow proves the existence of the ‘underclass’. If they can’t be identified by child abuse and murder, they shall be known by their diets. Sadly, it is this process of generalising anecdotes, of extrapolating from particular tragic instances, that allows columnists like Peter Hitchens to talk of the ‘violent and conscience-free underclass’ (9), or Cavendish of generational ‘fecklessness’ and ‘depravity’ (10).
We’ve been here before, of course. As Britain suffered the effects of its own Great Depression during the 1880s, and an increasingly confident working-class movement, emboldened by continental revolt, seemed stronger than ever, the spectre of social disorder haunted the Victorian imagination. Nowhere was the fear of social unrest more apparent than in the attitude to the so-called ‘residuum’ – that is, a section of the poverty-stricken marked out by depravity and criminality. In a remarkable echo of the current ‘underclass’-fuelled angst, an anonymously written pamphlet published in 1883, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, touched a fearful nerve. With its portraits of the violence, prostitution and crime rife in the slums and rookeries of London it captured a sense of unease, a sense that society was at risk of being contaminated by the moral rot at its margins. ‘This terrible flood of sin and misery is gaining upon us’, the then anonymous author warned (11).
But if the image of a section of society cut adrift and left to lead dissolute, amoral lives resonates with the contemporary evocation of the ‘underclass’, the response to the ‘residuum’ couldn’t have been more different. Having witnessed the failure of discrete philanthropy and charity – ‘their [charitable] remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it’, remarked Oscar Wilde (12) – such was the Victorian reformers’ confidence in social amelioration that they set out scientifically to conceptualise poverty, to draw out its degrees and valences so as to better conceive of a structural solution.
Such an approach, developed by the Fabian Society amongst others, was to inform the creation of the welfare state. So alongside the fear of social collapse there was a powerful belief in a social solution, in society’s ability to eradicate the problem of the ‘residuum’ once and for all. Now, however, it is this very faith, this conviction that society can be positively reorganised, that is being held responsible for all sorts of ills, including Baby P’s death. It is the welfare state and liberalism that is now seen as the root cause of the perceived malaise manifest in the so-called ‘underclass’. Welfare-dependent, benefit-scrounging and openly-depraved, the underclass are born of ‘institutionalised shamelessness’ (13). As Peter Hitchens put it, they are the product of ‘45 years of well-intentioned but disastrous socialism’ (14).
As opposed to the Victorian reformers, the response today to this ‘underclass’, encouraged to forgo civilisation by the all-too-tolerant welfare state, is only to condemn. What has been painfully lacking on the part of our politically correct, culturally relativist ‘social services’, critics argue, has been morality – in effect, righteous intolerance. As Cavendish puts it, there is a refusal today to say ‘wrong is wrong’; Phillips urges an end to ‘non-judgementalism’. Thus, the ‘underclass’ reveals itself for what it is: not a real, scientifically measurable class of people, but a moral category used to describe a moral problem.
This is not to dismiss the fragile existence of certain, very poor people, or the fact that there are large numbers of people who have ‘slipped through the net’ and who subsist on benefits rather than being productive members of society. But that is the danger with the revival of the ‘underclass’ as an explanatory term: instead of looking at such problems in terms, say, of unemployment or poor housing – in other words, social problems with social solutions – they are turned into moral problems. It is this approach that the tragic case of Baby P is being used to legitimise. It allows social issues to be reclassified as matters of morality, problems of people’s behaviour – it’s just a matter of wilful deviancy.
As the belief that society might be able to find social solutions to the problems in its midst has ebbed, the resulting uncertainty is objectified in the notion of an underclass, of a barbarity lurking ever more ominously on the margins. This projection performs a function. It allows those without a clue about what to do to puff themselves up; political disorientation at the top of society is projected as moral decay at its base. It is far easier for the elite to blame the pathetic and the powerless, and the debased, for the problems of a social world, rather than to come up with some solutions. Behind the shockingly strident moral posturing of the likes of Malone or Hitchens lurks the remoralisation of poverty – as the fault of the impoverished. That this might be the legacy of the Baby P case is a tragedy for the whole of society. It seems there is no event so tragic that the politically bankrupt will not seize upon it as a means for moral affirmation.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
(1) Words fail, The Times, 13 November 2008
(2) The cries of Baby P must not lead to despair, The Times, 14 November 2008
(3) The world around Baby P is wrong. Why are we afraid to say so?, Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2008
(4) Baby P: They’re ALL guilty, News of the World, 16 November 2008
(5) The liberals who did so much to destroy the family must share the blame for Baby P, Daily Mail 16 November 2008
(6) The cries of Baby P must not lead to despair, The Times, 14 November 2008
(7) See ‘The Return of the Residuum’ by Jane Cullen in Confrontation, Volume II, no 1, 1996
(8) The world around Baby P is wrong. Why are we afraid to say so?, Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2008
(9) If Baby P had been middle class, he’d have been taken away, Daily Mail, 15 November 2008
(10) The cries of Baby P must not lead to despair, The Times, 14 November 2008
(11) The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, Rev. Andrew Mearns, 1883
(12) The Soul of Man Under Socialism, by Oscar Wilde, Humphreys, 1912
(13) The cries of Baby P must not lead to despair, The Times, 14 November 2008
(14) If Baby P had been middle class, he’d have been taken away, Daily Mail, 15 November 2008