Feral kids: ‘confident, cocky and in control’?

Brown’s latest declaration of war on antisocial behaviour expolits today’s widespread adult fear of children.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Gordon Brown’s speech at the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week was meant to be the party’s call to arms. It was meant to be the speech of his lifetime. It was meant to remind voters and party members alike that New Labour still had it. But it didn’t. Instead, like a tired, drunk old man dimly recalling the conquests of his youth, the best Brown could do was dredge up a chat-up line from the Blairite past: we will deal with antisocial behaviour.

To be fair to the vacuous opportunists down in Brighton, antisocial behaviour has been very much in the news this week. This month’s inquest into the suicide of Fiona Pilkington and the resultant death of her severely disabled 18-year-old daughter in October 2007 revealed that local youths had made life miserable for the single-parent family. Never slow to exploit a tragic event for perceived electoral gain, the horrible behaviour of a group of kids in Leicestershire became a focus for Brown’s speech of a lifetime.

‘Between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing will focus in a more direct and intensive way on antisocial behaviour’, thundered Brown. This would mean that ‘action squads will crack down on problem estates’. The language is frightening. ‘Direct’ and ‘intensive’; ‘action squads’. One wonders if Brown took seriously the suggestion by one newspaper paper that living in certain towns in Leicestershire, one of which, Barwell, proved to be too much for the Pilkingtons, is like ‘living in Beirut’ (1). But Brown didn’t stop with an even-tougher-on-crime-than-Blair approach. Alongside direct police action, he also promised to increase the use of so-called Family Intervention Projects – that is, contracts set up between social workers and ‘families whose behaviour destroys communities’ (2): ‘Starting now and right across the next parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them.’ (3)

Although given a harsher twist, New Labour’s obsession with antisocial behaviour is nothing new. In fact, it was largely New Labour’s policies that introduced the term into public discourse. Before, bad behaviour, especially on the part of kids, might have been considered a nuisance or mischief-making. No doubt in some cases such behaviour did make people miserable, but it never had an official title. That was until New Labour introduced its antisocial behaviour legislation in the late 1990s. As the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act defined it, antisocial behaviour meant someone ‘behaving in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself’ (4). Those deemed guilty of such a vague transgression could be landed with an Anti-Social Behavioural Order (ASBO), the breaking of which can qualify as a criminal offence.

While the principal effect of such a policy has been to open up informally regulated areas of social life to state intervention, such as dealing with badly behaved kids, it has also reduced a range of behaviours to simply the poor decision-making of the protagonists. Social and economic failings, once the preoccupation of welfarism, are ignored under the rubric of antisocial behaviour. It is simply the feckless, feral fault of ‘chaotic families’. In effect, the idea of antisocial behaviour bundles up a complex of social issues and behaviours into the single, impossibly broad notion of ‘antisocial behaviour’, to the detriment of everyone. Bad behaviour, unless it’s criminal, not only should not be a policy issue. As the difficult history of ASBOs shows – hundreds of thousands have been issued, but less than half have been adhered to – it also cannot be.

Yet, as shamelessly opportunistic as New Labour is, the party didn’t simply pluck the problem of antisocial behaviour out of thin air. Rather, they exploited a sense of unease in society at large. This unease wasn’t due to a marked deterioration in young people’s behaviour; rather it came about because people’s perception of such behaviour changed. The agency that people lack in an increasingly atomised society, was projected elsewhere, on to others. As a sense-of-control ebbed, threats proliferated. The social world became a source of anxiety, of fear. Hence it was possible, in 2005, for Labour MP Frank Field to draw an analogy between those who blow up trains and buses and those who annoy neighbours: ‘Our country faces two major threats. One comes from international terrorism, the other from neighbourhood terrorists.’ (5) Bad behaviour, once deemed a nuisance that could be dealt with informally, became threatening behaviour that can only be dealt with formally, officially, and now with police ‘action squads’.

This projection of threatening agency on to today’s youth is nowhere more apparent than in the tragic case that prompted Brown to start spouting the antisocial behaviour line. On 23 October 2007, Fiona Pilkington got into her car with her severely disabled daughter Francecca. They drove to a layby on the A47 in Leicestershire. While her daughter clutched her pet rabbit, Pilkington proceeded to empty 10 litres of petrol over some clothes she’d put on the back seat. She then set them alight. Such was the force of the explosion that the bodies were only identified after DNA tests were carried out.

It is a horrible, tragic story. For nearly 20 years, Pilkington looked after and cared for her two disabled children; one, Francecca, had a mental age of three and was doubly incontinent. That in itself made for a difficult life. Add to that the 10 years’ worth of torment from local kids who used to throw things at Pilkington’s house, bully her son Antony, and shout at Pilkington when she walked by, and it sounds truly miserable. But, and this is key, it was Pilkington’s decision to take her own and her daughter’s life. As vile as those teenagers and children were, they did not drive Pilkington to that layby and set fire to the car; the tragic decision was hers alone.

Yet if the coverage following the inquest into the deaths is to be believed, Pilkington and her daughter were killed, in effect, by ‘feral Britain’ and the ‘street rats’ that inhabit estates such as the one in which Pilkington lived. This is what Brown is playing upon. It as if there is this breed – and the media rhetoric is almost always naturalising – of young people who terrorise adults. They are powerful; they are above and beyond the law; and most important of all they are possessed of an agency that the rest of the community lacks. In one article, tellingly titled ‘Kids are just ruling this road’, the sentiment is most clear: ‘Come [to Barwell] at night and it’s a very different place. There are few street lights; the only illumination comes from the flickering glow of televisions in front rooms. Curtains twitch as people peer out to see who may be passing. By 9pm, a gang of children has appeared. There are 10 or 11 of them, and they are young, aged from eight to 17. One rides a BMX, his bare tattooed chest on proud display. Others strut past, dressed all in black, hoodies hiding everything but their eyes. They swear and they swagger – they are confident, cocky, and in control.’ (6)

The David Attenborough-style commentary is revealing in itself. These kids are not seen as humans, no matter how naughty, but as a species apart, one inhabiting the underclass habitat of cider-drinking, small rooms, and large plasma TVs. Social inequalities are transformed into natural distinctions. But more important in this context is the amount of power with which 10 kids aged ‘eight to 17’ are invested. Kids rule! Except kids don’t really rule, not even when their number reaches double figures. Nor did they didn’t mount an insurgency at some point during the 1990s, dethroning existing adult authority. Rather, the terrifying power with which kids are currently invested is born from the process by which adults, bereft of the older, collective but non-state structures through which social life was understood and mediated, have unwittingly abdicated a position of authority. Little wonder that there is such a demand for outside intervention.

Most dispiriting of all, however, is the denigration of youth inherent in the notion of antisocial behaviour. The young are still seen in terms of the future, but it’s a future not of promise but of degeneracy and moral collapse. The contemporary stereotype of terrifying, threatening youth comes not from the hoodie-wearing kids themselves, but from a society far from at ease with itself.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

(1) See Still on the street and still a ‘menace’ – Family A of Bardon Road, Guardian, 29 September 2009

(2) See the Family Intervention Project toolkit

(3) Gordon Brown’s speech: an analysis, BBC News, 30 September 2009

(4) Antisocial behavioural orders, 31 March 2004

(5) See ASBOS: Politicians behaving badly, by Dolan Cummings, 21 April 2005

(6) Kids are just ruling this road, BBC News, 28 September 2009

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