Defame fathers, create crime?
Friends House, Euston Road, London
28 October 2000
When we discuss ‘violence’, just as when we discuss any other phenomenon, if the parties to the discussion are referring to different things that is a sure recipe for fruitless argument and permanent disagreement.
Usually ‘intellectuals’ have been concerned with two things concerning phenomena. One is to reveal similarities between apparently disparate events and things. The other is to go beyond similarities and reveal differences that have human consequences.
It is striking that in certain vital areas of human life our social-affairs intelligentsia has become enamoured of the first. They have become preoccupied with the clever-silly business of showing that phenomena that ordinary people take to be in their essence different, because of their profoundly different roles in human life, are the same.
Two of the most striking instances of this are of central concern to this conference.
The obliteration of distinctions between different modes of sexual activity and between different childrearing arrangements.
One is ‘the family’. Before the third quarter of the last century, it was rare indeed to find any society that did not make a sharp distinction between types of lone parent. There was, on the one hand, the situation in which children were being brought up by one parent because one of the other married parents had died. On the other hand, there was the situation in which children were being brought up by one parent because the other parent had not subjected himself or herself to the socially approved form of ‘marriage’, (whatever ‘marriage’ might have been or is in the given society). The widow, for example, was in a radically different social category to the unmarried mother. In the past forty or fifty years, with more and more success, our social-affairs intelligentsia has succeeded in obliterating the distinctions.
'A family' is now generally any private household where there is a child. Indeed, the notion that ‘the family’ is essentially about children is lost, and ‘a family’ comes to mean any two people of any ‘orientation’ who are in a ‘stable’ sexual relationship, or who perhaps just like one another.
The demand is then raised that all the social arrangements made to encourage permanent marriage in the interests of children must be extended to all these ‘families’. In other words, permanent marriage in the interests of children ceases to be a preferred social form at all.
Inevitably, as Patricia Morgan has vividly demonstrated to us this morning, because children do worse outside the institution of permanent marriage, the state has to step in to make up the shortfall. With the exception of the family of permanent marriage, all ‘families’ according to the new definition thereby become the chief beneficiaries of tax concessions, social security benefits and other state arrangements. With rare exceptions, where the preference for the family of permanent marriage is usually in any case qualified into oblivion, public authorities are then prohibited from expressing any preference at all for the family of permanent marriage. As a negation of the political process and social policy-making in all other areas of life, no assessment of better or worse social forms must be permitted here. ‘Alternative’ families must not be ‘stigmatised’.
All this can be seen at its worst in the egregious mush and muddle of the government’s green paper, misleadingly but characteristically called "Supporting Families".[i]
In the week we heard that once every few seconds there is now rape, beating or stabbing due to ‘domestic violence’. Once every three days a woman is killed by ‘domestic violence’. The police, according to the report, receive 1,300 calls of victims of violence ‘in the home’, ‘more than half a million a year’. I have not seen the study. Though I’d be pleased to lose the bet, I am willing to wager that the study will not enable us to know what proportion of people in families of permanent marriage experience domestic assaults, as compared with the proportion people in ‘alternative’ families who experience domestic assaults.
The obliteration of the distinction between different kinds of violence
Whatever else a ‘State’ does, it is a potential user of violence. ‘The State is an association that, acting through laws promulgated by a government endowed to that end with supreme coercive powers, maintains, in a community territorially demarcated, the universal external conditions of social order.’ In some communities the use of violence by the agents of the State is not widely approved by the citizenry. In others there is widespread and deep support for the way in which the State uses it. A State exists to the extent that a set of people are accorded the right by the population to use publicly approved and publicly regulated force against all other users of force. It exists to the extent that it succeeds in maintaining the legitimacy of its monopoly of violence.
Thus it is quite right to say that British people are using violence far less in the year 2000 than they were when they were quelling the Indian Mutiny; or fighting the Second Afghan War; or shelling the German lines on the Somme in 1916; or firing on the crowd at Amritsar; or sinking the Bismarck, or bombing Hamburg, Dresden, Nagasaki or Hiroshima; or on an altogether different scale fighting the Provisional IRA before the current cease fire. There have been serious mistakes. There have been court-martials and Royal Commissions galore, there have been books without number, dealing with abuses of the violence at the disposal of the State.
If anyone says to me, ‘I’m against all violence. For me all violence is the same. Therefore there is less violence today so far as the population of this country are engaged in it or suffering from it’, then I concede the whole point. So far as I am concerned that is the end of any argument about the simple volume or magnitude of public and private violence today as compared with the past. All right, in London in the six months up to September there were 2,700 ‘street crimes’ where the police were actually able to charge or caution somebody — forget about the muggers who got away.[ii] But Londoners are not engaged in either a foreign or a civil war.
If we consider private violence alone, then what has historically been considered a crucial distinction has also here been obscured or obliterated. There was on the one hand the private violence that the State condoned or encouraged. Teachers were permitted to use a limited number of strokes of the cane, without excessive force, on the hand or the backside of a pupil where the intention was to maintain the good order of the class or school. Parents were permitted to smack their children where the intention was to make their children behave ‘properly’.
Again, some teachers abused their position out of bad temper, sadism or sexual perversion. Some parents were cruel. It may be, also, that good order and good conduct were not fostered by the use of the cane or the smack on the calf or the bottom, and that there were always better methods to bring up a child. Almost certainly there are better methods, if there are no pressures of time to get the message across. I always felt how fortunate I was, as compared with my own father, to have all the time in the world as a lecturer in universities of the old style to negotiate every point with my own children, and concede to them, or kid them or cajole them into leading good and productive lives.
A fight at a football match or in the back street or outside a pub, where one man was taking on someone who, let us say, had sworn in the presence of a woman or a child, was regarded as part of the rough and ready machinery of local social control. Although there are few reliable data on which to base any opinion on the matter, I would myself expect that that kind of violence, private violence in the defence of community values, has almost certainly diminished. What man or woman in his or her right mind now attempts to even admonish what he or she regards as the bad behaviour of others in public? He’s too likely to find he has no support from anyone else, and perhaps to get a knife in his neck or his head kicked in for his trouble. She will count herself lucky if all she gets for her trouble is a stream of obscene abuse.
I will willingly concede each claim that anyone would want to make about the high volume in the past of official violence, and the high volume of unofficial violence in the interests of the maintenance of the community’s values. I am concerned this afternoon neither with the multitude of contentious questions of psychology and social organisation that would lie behind such a claim, nor with the paucity of reliable facts that we would need to answer it.
Today I am concerned only with the violence that individuals or gangs inflict on other people in the pursuit of their own interests, whatever those private interests might be, money, glory, excitement or revenge.
The rise in private violence for private purposes
Many or most of you will be familiar with the book by Karl Marx’s collaborator, Frederick Engels, "The Condition of the Working Class". All of you will know the title of that famous book which depicts in the darkest shades all that was wrong with England in 1844. 'With the extension of the proletariat’, Engels writes, ‘crime has increased in England, and the British nation has become the most criminal in the world.’ He points out, however, that most offences are not of violence, but against property, ‘as in all civilised countries’.
He then shows how bad things were in England in 1844. ‘I look at a random heap of English journals lying before me’, he writes. ‘There is the Manchester Guardian for October 30, 1844, which reports for three days that in Salford a couple of boys had been caught stealing, and a bankrupt tradesman tried to cheat his creditors.’ In Ashton in the course of three days there were two thefts, one burglary, and one suicide. In Bury there was one theft. In Bolton there were two thefts and a revenue fraud. In Leigh in the course of three days there was one theft. In Oldham there was a theft, a fight between Irish women, a non-union hatter assaulted by union men, a mother beaten by her son, an attack upon the police, and a robbery of a church. In Stockport there was discontent of working men with wages, a theft, a fraud, a fight, and a wife beaten by her husband. In Warrington there was one theft, and one fight. In Wigan there was one fight, and one robbery of a church.
In London, Engels writes, the position is much worse so far as crime is concerned. In a single day, according to reports Engels gleaned from The Times, there was in the whole of London no fewer than one theft, one attack upon the police, a sentence upon a father requiring him to support his illegitimate son, the abandonment of a child by his parents, and the poisoning of a man by his wife.
I don’t care what you think about the figures. The point is that Engels thought that these are what the figures were, and that he thought that they were amazing and a portend of the end of civilisation as he knew it. ‘Similar reports’, he says, ‘are to be found in all the English papers’, sufficient evidence, if evidence were needed, that ‘in this country, social war is under full headway’. Would that last night’s Sunderland Echo or today’s Evening Standard contained nothing but ‘horrific’ tales of this kind and frequency!
In his Preface to the 1892 edition of "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844", Engels says that improvements since he wrote the book meant that the shocking state of things he had described belonged, in many respects, to the past.[iii]
Isn’t it strange, too, that in Engels’ short list of heinous crimes, domestic violence and male irresponsibility feature so prominently? We are constantly told that until, very recently, militant feminists began to drag us away from the socially applauded horrors of patriarchal barbarism, to which hitherto the memory of man runs not contrary, male domestic violence was entirely the norm, and no one condemned it except, sometimes, the female victim.
From the time of Engels’ "Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844" until its lowest point in 1911 the trend in the recorded rate of violent crime-- violent crimes per 100,000 of the population--was fairly steadily down. This was the case even though there was far deeper poverty than anyone experiences today. Working-class employment was precarious, with rapid fluctuations in the unemployment rates which in certain industries, such as shipbuilding, regularly reached heights that have not been experienced in this country since before the Second World War.
But drunkenness in the working class was diminishing, in the way it had diminished a few decades previously in the upper class. Police forces were being established. (According to present day commentators, more police explains any rise in crime.) The housing stock was being improved. Public health measures had been put in train. Art galleries, parks, municipal baths and libraries were being founded. From 1870 elementary schooling was universally available by law. Before the end of the century education was compulsory for young children, and the Board schools were free.
In the period between 1857 and 1906 the population of England and Wales rose by about 15 million, from 19 million to 34 million. The total number of offences against the person rose by only 228 cases, so that by 1906 there were 2,546 offences against the person.
What the figures show, commentators confirm. We discern this even in the fiction of the period. In the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, the great detective explains his lethargy and drug taking to his new flat mate Dr Watson by saying that London was no place for a detective. There was no crime. I should like to be shown any contemporaneous comment that suggests during the late and early Edwardian period crime in England was increasing. In the first of the modern spy thrillers, The Riddle of the Sands, published in 1903, Erskine Childers, remarks in passing that all thoughtful observers of the time knew that the most striking feature of modern democracy was the improvement in the common sense conduct of the general population. Conspicuous proofs of this abounded in history, he wrote.[iv] Dean Inge, famed in his time as an unsentimental social critic, wrote in 1917 that the Great War had awoken a sense of fear for the integrity of the home and the safety of women and children. This was a feeling, he wrote, ‘to which modern civilised man had long been a stranger’.[v]
Between 1906 and 1991 population of England and Wales rose by about roughly the same figure, 17 million, from 34 million to 51 million. But the total number of offences against the person did not rise by roughly 228. It rose by 187,500, with a very marked shift upward from 1955, so that by 1991 there were 190,000 offences against the person. For every one offence in 1906, there were 75 in 1991. Engels’s startled response in 1844 to the reports of, by the standards of today, mainly trivial violent and other crimes - including domestic violence - in Bury, Bolton, Oldham, Stockport, Warrington, and London itself, is surely sufficient proof that the increase is not a statistical freak caused by people becoming more intolerant of violence since Engels’ time.
In the single year, 1990-1991, the rise in offences against the person was 35 times the total figure in 1906.
After the Great War, through the depressions of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War and its aftermath, the overall crime rate rose fairly steadily. By the early 1950s it was about four times its lowest rate of 1911. But by present-day standards even the figures for the 1950s were still extraordinarily low.
Those are the statistics. Were they confirmed or contradicted by the reports of contemporary observers? In 1944 George Orwell wrote approvingly of the ‘gentle-mannered, undemonstrative, law-abiding English’:
An imaginary foreign observer (he wrote) would certainly be struck by our gentleness; by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling ...And except for certain well-defined areas in half-a-dozen big towns, there is very little crime or violence.[vi]
A few years later a noted anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer, set out the problem he had to solve if he were to give an adequate account of the English national character. In public life today, he wrote, "the English are certainly among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilised world has ever seen ... the control of aggression has gone to such remarkable lengths that you hardly ever see a fight in a bar (a not uncommon spectacle in most of the rest of Europe or the USA), [and] football crowds are as orderly as church meetings. Still in 1955 it was this, to use Gorer's words, ‘orderliness, gentleness, and absence of overt aggression’ that puzzled the anthropologist and called for an explanation.[vii]
K.B. Smellie, a professor at the London School of Economics respected by and popular with the students of the late 1940s and early 1950s wrote of the English man [and woman] that: "There can be little doubt that the life of towns has steadily improved. ... Drunkenness has fallen steadily. So too has public violence. ... From the Yahoo habits of eighteenth-century London we have passed into an almost Houyhnhnm rationality of orderly processions and patient queues. And, almost certainly with the passing of violence, drunkenness and squalor, has gone much cruelty as well. Personal relations are more gentle and, as one observer has said 'the contemporary English would appear to have as unaggressive a public life as any recorded people'.[viii]
I was in school in the most inner city of Sunderland’s inner city schools in the 1930s, Green Terrace Elementary. As boys and girls we were taught to be honest and honourable far more than we were taught to be ‘clever’. We learned by heart the ballad that celebrated the conduct of Private Moyse. Moyse, was killed and his body thrown on a dung heap because when he was taken prisoner he refused to perform the Kowtow to the Chinese authorities.
Vain mightiest fleets of iron framed,
Vain those all-shattering guns,
Unless proud England keep untamed
The strong heart of her sons;
So let his name through Europe ring,--
A man of mean estate,
Who died, as firm as Sparta's king,
Because his soul was great.
Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, ‘The Private of the Buffs’
Fancy pumping that into boys! The same message was inculcated by tram conductors, park keepers, uncles, aunts, shopkeepers, in innumerable gestures and messages. A boy’s conduct, language and demeanour were judged mainly against this criterion. Was it appropriate to a manhood of responsible citizenship, mainly in the form of his ability and willingness to look after his own children and mother of his own children, under the same roof, for his adult lifetime?
Well, what is pumped or is seeped into boys today? Think of the contrast! The local school as a force for moulding the attitudes and motives of boys is now faced with the fierce competition of the global industries that sell entertainment. You’ll know the words of the current chart-topping sensation by Eminem, topping the charts because in many forms boys and young men are buying Eminem’s message:
I get the party crackin’ with the s*** that I be spittin’,
Hit and run, get it done, get the fun, split and run.
Got about fifty guns, and I love all of them the same.
A Guardian/ICM poll of 18-24 year olds published this morning shows that 7 per cent could name Milton’s greatest poem. But 79 per cent knew Eminem. You have only to read this morning’s editorial in the Guardian on these findings to see all that’s most complacent and shallow in contemporary intellectual life. The unstocked minds of the young are their asset because they can get all the information that they want on the internet! Surely there is a non sequitur here somewhere. Surely there is a need to worry if the messages that they actually seek and that in fact get through to them are those from Eminem and not those of Paradise Lost.
This is another area where the clever-silly social-affairs intelligentsia obliterates differences that ordinary people have always regarded as crucial. The most diverse categories of conduct are collapsed into the concept of ‘the macho man’, as if there was not the world of a difference between the manliness portrayed in Simon Agonistes or Cicero’s ‘A practical code of behaviour’,[ix] or the men who went down with the Birkenhead or went to sea in the mercantile marine at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, and the selfish oafs and ignoramouses celebrated in Eminem’s rant, or the boy muggers caught in the act on the CCTV cameras on Broadmead, Bristol, who you can see on BBC’s Panorama tomorrow night.
I’m not making the utterly ridiculous assertion that at any time in history most boys read Milton and Cicero or any other such high-flown stuff, though you can be sure that I’ll be accused of saying that. I am saying that the ideals so marvellously expressed by the custodians of our culture came down to boys in England in one form or another and through one channel another literally for millennia. All sorts of other messages and personal temptations competed with these ideals. But by and large in public life these ideals were in the ascendant. You have to hunt far and wide to discover them being advocated or upheld today. You’d have to hunt far and wide to find intellectuals who do not sneer at them.
Once established in the public mind, the increasingly denigrated image of the man as brutal husband and father was then unthinkingly and repetitiously presented as fact by clever-silly intellectuals in the universities and the media, and by naïve ‘progressives’ in politics, religion and the law. As a typical example the enlightened Cambridge don Peter Marris can be quoted. Dealing with a famous study of the slums in Salford, Marris says that the study showed that ‘fathers were petty tyrants, remote and harsh’.rxThose are this Marris’ words. What the book on the Salford slums actually said about slum fathers was that "Despite poverty and appalling surroundings parents brought up their children to be decent kindly and honourable and often lived to see them occupy a higher social place socially than they had ever known themselves; the greatest satisfaction of all. It is such people and their children who deny indignantly (and I believe rightly) that the slum life of the industrial North in this century, for all its horrors, was ever so mindless and uncouth as superficial play or novel would have later generations believe".
The book on Salford says that the dwellers in the slum had, en masse, little education. But there was ‘abundant evidence’, it says, of ‘intelligence, shrewdness, restraint and maturity’, and that very many families even in the worst districts remained ‘awesomely respectable’. Presumably Robert Roberts, the author of the Salford book, did not envisage that not only explicit fiction, but purported social-scientific fact from Cambridge dons would before long not only repeat the same falsehood, but should actually use his book to do so. What people like Marris depend on is a caricature of the ‘cruder and more moronic’ men who, in Roberts’ words, ‘set no standards’ and when they were sober knew their place as pariahs, even in the slum. Home, however poor, Roberts wrote, was the focus of all the child’s love and interests, and (quote) ‘songs about its beauties were ever on people’s lips’.[xi]
I am the very first to admit that years of relentless and ultimately wholly successful propaganda, aimed at denigrating men in general and fathers in particular, have relegated to antiquarian interest only such education and the effects it had on the pupils subjected to it before, during and for some years after my slum boyhood. Much worse was soon to come. In the 1970s and 1980s what had formerly been only a gradual, insidious undermining by insinuation of the prestige of the father’s role turned into the explicit disparagement of married fatherliness by vociferous pressure groups. With ominous rapidity the views of the anti-married-father pressure groups were taken up by politicians of the left and right, by lawyers, by judges, and by the most senior as well as the most junior of clergymen and clergywomen. Not surprisingly, anti-married-father views found their fullest and most mindless consolidation among the paid professionals of state social work and the paid professionals of charitable counselling.
What, in this new period, was happening to the crime figures? The rate of acceleration was such that, within a few years of 1955, the graph of the whole previous historical series from 1857 to 1955 (needed to be rescaled to cope with the post-1955 increases - LT).
If we focus on the violent crime of robbery: the increase in robberies in the twelve months from 1990 to 1991 was more than the total number of robberies throughout the entire period between the two world wars--the total of all robberies from 1919 to 1938. Armed robbery did not even appear as an offence until the figures for 1970 were published. In that year there were 480 armed robberies. By 1991 there were 5,300. The increases in the single year from 1990 to 1991 had been three times the total of armed robberies in 1970.
For the figures from 1981, then, we can depend upon the British Crime Survey. We have no longer, then, to even consider the complaints that the old series, collected by the police since 1857. The police series had and has its weaknesses of reporting, recording, and changing definitions, specious though those complaints were and are when the issue was and is trends in crime. I’ll take robbery again, which includes, of course, what is popularly called ‘mugging’. Between 1981 and 1999 robbery rate doubled, from 42 per 10,000 adults to 84 per 10,000 adults.[xii]
Estimating the total number of robberies from the sample, the BCS concludes that in England and Wales there were
|1997||309,000 [a fall]|
Cases of common assault increased by 45 per cent. The fewer cases of wounding make the figures less reliable, but on the figures there was a 15 per cent increase.
There was a 40 per cent increase in informants telling the interviewer that they had been the victim of "some form" of criminal violence. (The increase was from 560 to 770 cases per 10,000 informants.)
The fundamental question is not what explains any short-term fluctuation in violence from one recent year to the next. The fundamental question relates to the whole period from about 1955. The force that has operated since about 1955, and that has had the effect of steadily multiplying crimes of violence to such a remarkable extent through all economic and political vicissitudes, has been the spreading and now pervasive disparagement of generous and self-sacrificing manliness and the steadily growing but remorseless exclusion by Parliament and the courts of men from their social role in the married family. I personally object strongly to the Orwellian efforts of the intelligentsia, largely successful, to induce historical amnesia or alternatively to create the historical untruth that men were always created by their upbringing to be, and in general were, selfish and exploitative boyfriends, violent and unfaithful husbands and cruel and incestuous fathers. This lie is poured out through all the powerful media as fact, entertainment and art, whether it is music and song of the Eminem kind, or the totally false impression of life in a pit village like Easington Colliery presented by the supposed ‘gritty realism’ (and certainly superb cinematographic artistry) of ‘Billy Elliot’. It is about time that the lying stopped.
Norman Dennis is the author of Families without Fatherhood and Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family. The latter is now out of print, but the new, third, edition of Families without Fatherhood (co-authored with George Erdos) can be obtained from Civitas, The Mezzanine, Elizabeth House, 39 York Road, London SE1 7NQ. Tel. 020 7401 5470. email firstname.lastname@example.org. Norman Dennis also deals with these issues in The Invention of Permanent Poverty, where he disputes the theory that greater poverty, either absolute or relative, can explain the rise in violent crime. This, too, is available from Civitas.
a) Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales
per 100,000 population, 1860-1914
(excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under')
|1900-10||258 (annual average)|
|1910-14||271 (annual average)|
Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales , annually from 1857
b) Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales
per 100,000 population, 1920-1950
(excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under' )
|1920-24||282 (annual average)|
|1930-34||489 (annual average)|
Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales annually from 1857
c) Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales
per 100,000 population, 1960-1991
excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under'
Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales Annually from 1857