Saturday, December 08, 2007

Myth Of The Myth Of The Golden Age (again)

Surely the most famous liberal myth of all - and you'd never guess who's peddling it.

Poll Pot (for it is she, in a fatuous Guardian piece on prisons) :

Look at the website's paper, Historical myth-making in juvenile justice policy, by Abigail Wills. She exposes two contradictory myths: that there was a golden age of law and order; and that treatment of juveniles is now more enlightened.

OK, so I did.

One of the most entrenched beliefs about juvenile crime today is that the stable and law-abiding society of past decades is steadily degenerating into lawlessness and amorality. A textbook example of this is a letter to a local paper in October 2005 which argued that:

people nationally are sick of kids making their life hell ...It never happened in the 1950s; it wouldn't be tolerated, bearing in mind we had corporal and capital punishment, Borstals, Approved Schools, plus a real police force with a free hand on crime (W.J. Warren, Plymouth Evening Herald, 2005).

In this story, these effective strategies were abandoned during the permissive 1960s, leading to '40 years of liberal social policies which have pandered to the yob culture'(Western Morning News, 2005).

On the left, such ideas are widely disparaged as the product of reactionary right-wing nostalgia - a harking back to the imaginary 'peaceable kingdom' of the 1950s. However, more liberal worldviews are not immune from rose-tinted visions of the past. Here, the tendency is to see current problems with youth crime as a consequence of the Thatcherite individualism which destroyed the social cohesiveness and solidarity of the early decades of the welfare state. In 2006, the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) published a report entitled Freedom's Orphans, suggesting that rising consumerism and social inequality since the 1970s have been responsible for producing a generation of children who are 'not learning how to behave ... as they should.' Such ideas are accompanied by an acknowledgement that social fears about youth crime are not new - but alongside this often goes the belief that criminality in the past was somehow more benign than today, and that previous concerns about it were therefore unjustified. In contrast, modern fears are deemed entirely rational and evidence-based. In response to the IPPR report, the journalist Finlay MacDonald, for example, acknowledged that 'each generation tends to freak out a little about the one coming up', but went on to argue that 'this time I'm less inclined to dismiss the brutal headlines ... as just another media concoction.' The idea that society is undergoing some sort of inexorable moral decline holds enormous power.

Government rhetoric has exploited this sentiment, invoking a nebulous 'golden age' of peace and harmony in order to justify new criminal justice policies - while simultaneously denying that this is what they are doing. When launching the 'Respect' agenda against anti-social behaviour in early 2005, for example, Tony Blair stressed that he did not believe in 'restarting the search for the golden age. We are not looking to go back to anything.' Yet he also argued, with no apparent sense of irony, that in the 1930s of his father's childhood, 'people behaved more respectfully to one another and people are trying to get back to that.' More recently, he has shifted this arcadia forward a generation, arguing that:

when I was growing up in the North-east of England, anti-social behaviour wasn't a concept in people's minds. That's not to say that people weren't doing bad things - they were. It was just it was a completely different order of problems that we had to deal with.

The perception that society is dealing with an unprecedented problem has justified radical solutions, including overturning the principle of the presumption of innocence and 'moving the focus [of the justice system] away from the offender, and towards the needs of victims and witnesses.'

With the condescension of posterity, we are unwilling to believe that society in past decades tackled problems of equal magnitude, and spoke about crime in similar languages to those of today. The belief that youth misbehaviour is a symptom of catastrophic societal decline has a particularly long-established pedigree, as the historian Geoffrey Pearson has shown. Indeed, the 'deferential' 1950s of popular and political memory were a time of particular panic about juvenile crime. As The Times noted in 1952, 'there has been a decline in the disciplinary forces governing a child. Obedience and respect for the law have decreased.' As today, such fears were accompanied by a sense that past eras were more respectful, and past criminality more benign. In 1953, the president of the Approved Schools Association looked nostalgically back to his earlier charges, noting that:

many of our boys and girls of thirty or more years ago ... knew the feel of empty stomachs... When they arrived in an Approved School with a good bed, good food and even a minimum of recreational equipment, ... they quickly developed a feeling of satisfaction and security.

In contrast, he felt that the affluence of the 1950s had produced a wholly 'different type of boy and girl.' Politicians and the public of the era were convinced, as we are now, that as a result of trends in modern society, youth crime had become a new and unprecedented threat.

The belief in modern rationality as distinct from the barbarity of the past has a similarly lengthy history. The Approved Schools and Borstals now maligned as 'Dickensian' institutions were, in their day, proclaimed as modern replacements for the earlier, more brutal regimes of the Reformatory and Industrial Schools. Today's language of 'evidence-based' innovations in custodial regimes mirrors earlier discussions about the need for practice to be based on the latest knowledge about child psychology. The pioneering headmaster of the Aycliffe Approved School, John Gittins, declared in 1952 that his institution was 'a kind of crucible in which one is carrying out an experiment using ingredients in a concentrated form.' The enlistment of 'scientific' certainties in validating practice is far from a new phenomenon: for at least a century each new generation has proclaimed itself to be at the dawn of a new, more enlightened age of juvenile justice. Politicians have consistently placed themselves at the vanguard of such progressivism, trumpeting their radically innovative policy transformations. Hazel Blears was but one in a long line; she followed in the steps of Alan Brown MP, who in 1961 was reported to have argued that 'more progress had been made in the past twelve months to halt the ever-increasing incidence of juvenile delinquency than had been achieved in the past half-century.'

In reality, both the golden age and the barbarous past are delusions. It is notable here that both of Tony Blair's examples of 'respectful' communities of the past were roundly denounced by those who had experienced them. A neighbour of Blair's father noted that:

Govan [in the 1930s] was a terrible place to live. Poverty and misery were widespread and it was a violent place as well... You had lads hanging about street corners with no work and nothing to do. They got up to as much trouble then as the young people do now...' (Sunday Times, 2006).

A correspondent in The Independent likewise contrasted Blair's claim that anti-social behaviour was unknown in the 1950s with his memory of 'gangs of "teddy boys" with razor blades and bicycle chains fighting in the centre of town on Friday night' (2007). The assumption that we live in a more violent and disrespectful society than in the past is a highly tenuous one.

The History and Policy website which contains this anecdotal "history" has among its aims to "Increase the influence of historical research over current policy". I get a nasty feeling it's in fact another bunch of lefty tax-funded academics pledged to do battle with those evil tabloid myths that have such a hold over our elected representatives. It's another Centre For Crime and Justice Studies.

The exposure of the myth boils down to two amazing discoveries :

  1. In past times some people complained about the young, and thought they were lacking in respect for their elders. Ms Wills manfully avoided the temptation to quote any ancient Greeks or Romans, wisely finding examples (one example, to be precise) from her ci-devant Mythical Golden Age of the 1950s. The implication, that because people in past times complained about worsening behaviour, therefore at no time has behaviour actually worsened, is unstated.
  2. Two people interviewed by the newpapers said that there was crime and anti-social behaviour in the past, something that no-one could disagree with. One of them, talking of Govan, said the 1930s were as bad as today in terms of juvenile misbehaviour.
Abigail Wills is apparently a professional historian, a Research Fellow at Oxford, no less. I'll pass on a historian using phrases like 'reactionary right-wing nostalgia', surely more redolent of partisanship than scholarship. If the above is typical of the standard of evidence on which historians at our most famous universities now decide contentious historical questions, British education is in worse trouble than I thought. There's a place for anecdote in history, even anecdote from memory, either in supporting other evidence or (in bulk or from key sources) as the evidence itself. Could Ms Wills find hundreds, or even dozens, of such examples - and crucially, given what's probably a universal human tendency to see our childhoods as safer than the present, anecdotes featuring detail on the nature and scale of the bad behaviour - then she might be on to something, especially if her search also involved looking for contradictory evidence. But to hang a thesis on what one bloke in Durham remembers of his youth - that's not history but polemic, and poorly-supported polemic at that.

Historical myth-making in juvenile justice policy, eh ? Tu quoque, old girl.

Here's a graph from this pdf, showing recorded offences in England and Wales 1900-1997.

Maybe Ms Wills trained under Jerry Brotton.

(comments are open on this post)


Anonymous said...

"The implication, that because people in past times complained about worsening behaviour, therefore at no time has behaviour actually worsened,"...
Is risible.

My old Dad used to gripe about the price of petrol in the 60's. I gripe about the price of petrol now. Therefore the price of petrol is the same today as it was 40 years ago.

JohnM said...

You wouldn't happen to have info on how that graph extends to 2007? Does the fall continue?

cramerj said...

You seem to be rambling on and cherry picking your facts.
Schools were disciplined in the fifties. Shop lifting was rare. And national service waited. Etc Etc.
I bet you were not there.

James G. said...

I imagine that even if the fall continues at the end of the graph (and I suspect it does), it is because victims of crimes are now reporting them less because they know absolutely nothing will come of any complaints they make.


JohnM said...


I don't know either way. I wasn't making a point, I was just asking if the following ten years are known.

The following thoughts occur to me:

1. It seems likely that the fall does continue because the likes of Poly claim a great Labour success.

2. It seems likely that routine government manipulation of the figures is producing a "tractor production is up again" scenario.

3. Knowing the police will not investigate does deter people from reporting crimes (at least for certain crimes).

4. Knowing that the "criminal" will be free to retaliate (either because they are not investigated or because they will not be punished in a way that deters) will deter people from reporting.

5. Not being able to claim on insurance without a crime number will encourage people to report.

6. Those who can, take avoiding action to reduce the opportunity for crime.

PaulCox said...

Slightly OT but a plea to Laban.

I'm ignorant of the exact reasons why the comments were stopped in most posts for which I apologise.

However, I just feel that it is rather better to have them open all the time.

A wonderful site such as this is tarnished by not having them available IMHO.

I have learned from comments in The G's CIF. I could always be simarly educated (or amused!) by comments here.

Please Laban. Please.

Anonymous said...

Apparently too many people made comments like this one time -

Rargh! Kill liberal traitors and stick their heads on spikes! Rargh!

Laban explained that he wanted his blog to appeal to liberal minded folk that might be questioning liberal orthodoxy for themselves, and would find the above sort of thing off-putting. So comments were closed.

Anonymous said...

A not completely irrelevant phenomenon is noted at PJM: When So-Called Experts Deceive Themselves.

Key phrases: "anomalous information", "analysis that the decision-makers wanted to hear"