Beatrix Campbell: New Labour likes parents who smack

Children have become the new enemy within: to be patrolled, policed, trained and managed
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The Independent Online

Imagine, you stand two feet high, you can't whistle, you can sing but you can't speak in sentences, you don't know your way home, but you know one thing: when that man towering over you with a hand as big as your head whacks you with it, he is telling you something not about you but about him: he is the power.

Last week's smacking débâcle tells parents that as long as they don't bite, scratch, whip, bruise, cut or burn then their right to hurt and humiliate is secure.

Lord Lester did not bring his usually forensic intelligence to the Lords debate. By exempting violence against children which leaves no trace, he echoed - unconsciously, no doubt - other debates about child abuse. There is a view, fielded by advocates for accused adults, that as long as people with a sexual interest in children don't do "real" sex, as long as their acts leave no trail, no rips, bruises or blood, then their intrusions upon the bodies of children are as fleeting and forgettable as an eyelash falling from a face. We know they are horribly wrong.

Both Lord Lester and the Government are interpreting rights as if they could be abstracted from the drama of power. But rights are not acts, or things: rights are relationships. The right to do violence to children has been defended by a lament of victimisation, placing parents at the mercy of children, as if the identity and authority of adults was put at risk by infants' inarticulacy and unruly irreverence.

This version of parenting positions adults as foxed and fearful, provoked to deploy overwhelming force by demonic infants who, damn them, don't know how the world works.

However, we have learned from our discoveries about domestic violence and sexual crime that they are not the work of hapless, incontinent men losing control: they are the means of taking control, asserting dominion as men.

Instead of this debate opening a national conversation about how to lend public solidarity to the difficulties of parenting, the exhaustion, the self-sacrifice, the bewilderment, and not least the demand that we learn from experience, smacking is put to the service of another debate altogether. In the discourse of New Labour, children have become the new enemy within: to be patrolled, policed, trained, managed. Parenting as care rather than control contributes, it is said, to the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

In the 1997 general election one of New Labour's five pledges to the electorate was fast-tracking the prosecution of child offenders. It made no equivalent pledge to fast-track the prosecution of adults who commit offences against children.

So, smacking is a proxy for New Labour's law and order populism. Paradoxically, this is confirmed by its disingenuous claim that it doesn't want to "criminalise parents", endorsed by the Tory spokesman Liam Fox. He fumed against the - failed - smacking ban as "outrageous intrusion by the state into parents' rights and duties". Lest we forget, the history of the state's relation to childhood, like women, is the regulation of the violence, sex and exploitation to which they should, or should not, submit.

In any case, the Government gives its own game away by fervently criminalising some parents while liberating others.

Parents are being prosecuted for their truanting teenagers. But it is increasingly difficult to get parents suspected of killing their children to court. Indeed, the Appeal Court has recently ruled that if there is conflicting expert evidence on the killing of an infant there should be no prosecution.

Transpose that judgement to ballistics, or tort or terrorism and we see that the state is ready to exempt some violent or suspect parenting from scrutiny in the service of its larger defence of traditional authority.

If there is any logic to the Government's smacking hubris then it is about power: parenting as control is affirmed; parents who lose control can be criminalised. So, the duty to contribute to a non-violent society lies with children, not grown-ups. And the commandment to parents is: thou shalt not hit anyone your own size.

Joan Smith is away