E Jane Dickson: We can't always blame it on the system

If it’s not the infrastructure in the dock in cases like this, then it’s society

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Who broke Britain? Nobody knows. Apparently it just came apart in our hands. We have our suspicions, of course, and this week, as appalled attention is focused on events in Edlington, where children were lured into a ravine and tortured horribly by other children, the usual suspects are lined up. Unfit parents. Inadequate care services. A violent, media-fuelled subculture. Each will be hauled in for its moment under the interrogation spotlight. And when none of the charges can be made to stick, we'll dump the ghastly, unresolved mess at the door of "the system".

Blaming the system is a very British way of offloading responsibility. We take a strange, grim satisfaction in the Orwellian notion of faceless powers beyond comprehension or control. We find comfort in abstraction and, indeed, the whole notion of "broken Britain", seized upon with such fervour by David Cameron; a big fat, convenient abstract, designed, like the "underclass" of the Eighties, to distance the speaker from the problem he deplores.

There was nothing abstract about the injuries inflicted on the young victims in Edlington. Their suffering cannot, must not, be vaporised beyond accountability. Nor should the horrific life experience of their tormentors, neglected, it would seem, both by parents and social services, go unregarded. Neighbours had been sufficiently alarmed by, and, one must assume, for the accused boys, brothers aged 10 and 11 – to report them many times, over several years, to both police and social services.

Nobody likes a witch hunt, but somewhere, surely, the buck must stop. Social workers for Doncaster council, the local authority with responsibility for the brothers, were already under scrutiny after an Ofsted report described the department as "inadequate" following the suspicious deaths of seven children known to department staff in five years. Someone, presumably, was carrying round a hefty social services file detailing the brothers' appalling home life – the father who disciplined them with a golf club, the mother who shaved cannabis into their drinks to calm them down.

Yet the boys were only removed to a foster home a few weeks before the attack in the ravine. The younger boy was, at the time of his arrest, on bail to go before the youth courts on two charges of actual bodily harm and one of burglary. The elder was two months into a supervision order for battery. "Slipping through the system" doesn't begin to cover it.

Clearly some of the faults exposed by the Edlington case can reasonably be described as systemic. The provision of effective foster care, for one thing, is underfunded nationwide, with huge variation in the support offered to foster parents caring for disturbed children. There is no doubt, too, that efficient and conscientious social workers, may find themselves unable to follow their instincts, frustrated by rigid legislation and bureaucracy.

By and large, it doesn't seem so very harsh to suggest that systems are as good as the people who run them, though it's not a notion that goes down well in the age of industrial tribunals. Just this week, Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of Haringey council's children's services, who declined to blame any member of her staff for the death of "Baby P", launched a claim, said to be worth a potential £1m, for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination.

If it is not the infrastructure in the dock, then it is society. Perhaps the craziest turn of events around Doncaster this week was the newly elected mayor, Peter Davies, suggesting that Britain could learn a thing or two when it comes to matters of family and society from the Taliban.

He later amended his comment, explaining that he was by no means endorsing the Taliban's views on, for example, the flogging of women who walk out in public without a male relative, but simply pointing out that the Taliban appeared to have an impressively "ordered system of family life".

Yup. There goes that word again. It seems that if we are not railing against a given system, we are deploring the lack of one. Our frankly fetishistic approach to the subject, is, I suspect, a generational thing. Baby Boomers grew up constitutionally adapted to smashing the system. And now that they are the ones running the show, they're confused, terrified, as it were, of finding themselves on the right side of authority.

Born to peace and plenty, secure in the knowledge that two world wars (and Vietnam) were "not their fault", it is as if an entire generation has decided that nothing, officially, will ever be their fault again. Hence the fastidious sidestepping of anything that looks like responsibility, let alone accountability in public life.

"F***ing ignore the system, use it when it suits you," chirped Johnny Rotten back in the days when we were all (just) young enough to get away with an anarchy T-shirt. It wasn't that cute then. And, oh, how it haunts us now. We cannot, with any credibility, blame the system, because we are the system. I am more convinced by the true radical William Blake (better T-shirt, too), who declared "I must Create a System or be enslav'd by another Man's". Hell, it's got to be worth a try.

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