Bruce Anderson: Youth must be spared from feral criminality

It may be necessary to intervene and help single mothers create a family life
Click to follow

For many years, whenever the Tory party was stuck for a date, it always had a standby. There was a girl called Laura Norder. Every year she could be sure of an invitation to the Tory party conference. She would appear on the platform and there would be lots of applause. Now, there is a change. David Cameron has a hankering for more sophisticated company. On law and order, he agrees with Tony Blair.

Or at least, he agrees with a phrase of Mr Blair's: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime''. When it was first used, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were delighted. "Tough on crime": a raid into Tory territory. "Tough on the causes": reassurance to the left. The phrase did its work. Of course, none of them regarded themselves as committed to turning it into a policy. That is not how New Labour works. As ever, Mr Blair's motto was the Latin tag: Vox et praeterea nihil. A voice, and beyond that - nothing.

Nothing will come of nothing. Mr Cameron does believe in the doubly tough approach. He also knows that finding a way to tackle the causes will require hard thinking. But there is evidence to work with. We know a lot about the average criminal. He (it usually is a male) is between 14 and 25. He does not come from a broken home, for in order to be broken, something must once have been whole. The average criminal's home is a mere dwelling place for feral humans.

Often, he will never have known his father - whose identity may have been a subject of speculation - around the time of his birth. If Dad did put in an appearance, it was probably a disruptive and violent one. Dad was not there to provide security, order and love as he socialised his son into manhood. Dad imparted one lesson. If you want something - money, a woman, wheels - take it. Such an upbringing is guaranteed to ensure that its victim is full of rage and hate. When he was little, other people hit him. As he grows bigger, he hits them.

These kids are brought up in slum families and go to slum schools (when they attend at all). Is it any wonder that they grow up with a slum between their ears? Given that, is it surprising that we have a crime problem? These youths are responsible for about half of all crimes, and a much higher proportion of the most threatening ones: murder, rape and brutal robberies.

So how do we tackle this? Years ago, when he wrote speeches for Margaret Thatcher, Chris Patten came up with a phrase: "Catch them and punish them." At the time, he was teased about it. I suspect that he does not regard it as his greatest contribution to the language. But he had a point. The best way to deter criminals is the nearest we can come to certainty of detection.

This means spending a lot more money in order to recruit a lot more policemen, and devoting the necessary intellectual energy to using them where they are needed. In London, it will require new men at the top, to restore leadership and operational rigour to the Metropolitan Police.

Punishment must have a role. Mr Cameron is not arguing that any criminal should spend a day less in custody for any crime. But by the time the average offender comes up for sentencing, he has already inflicted mayhem and misery on others while damaging himself. We cannot evade the duty to punish. Nor can we evade a melancholy truth: that punishment is an admission of failure.

We must try to save our lost youngsters from their background and themselves before they are exposed to the tender mercies of the prison service. "Mending broken lives" was the phrase which Mr Cameron used in his party conference speech. In his case, this is not just a phrase. It is a moral imperative. He regards it as a vital priority, and duty, for a Cameron government. Even if it means upsetting pieties, he is determined to make his fellow Tories share that vision.

It will not be easy to turn vision into action. These young criminals are like buildings without foundations, and it is far harder to pour in the emotional equivalent of concrete. It may indeed be necessary to intervene much earlier: to try to identify the children at risk when they are only three or four and to help their single mothers to create a family life.

To some traditional Tories, this may sound like sentimental mush. If that is their initial reaction, they should think again. By aiming to drain the social swamps which breed crime, Mr Cameron is defending the interests of everyone in this country who would like to live free from the fear of crime.

Every day in the papers, we read of a different type of young man. This is someone who was a delight to his family and his friends; whose every waking moment was a contribution to society; who was full of hope and promise. Now, he is just a bleeding piece of earth: the latest victim of the feral young.

We read, and we too feel rage and hate. But they are not thoughtful counsellors. If good lives are not to be cut off by fractured lives, we have to identify the causes of crime, before cause becomes effect. Everyone agrees that preventative medicine is better than drastic surgery. The same is true of preventative criminology. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was one of the better ideas which any politician has had in recent years. What a pity that it was only a cynical stunt. Mr Cameron must now transform it from words into deeds.