Leading Article: An indictment of fractured Britain

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The Independent Online
After the horror comes reflection. As the dreadful story of James Bulger's murder unfolded, most people could only weep and wonder. Now they begin to ask questions. For instance, how many people share blame for the murder? To deny the personal responsibility of the murderers is to head down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which no one is responsible for anything. Although young, they were judged capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. They knew what they were doing.

But it would be crass to deny that they were also shaped by heredity and environment - their parents, their friends, their schools, television, the social services, the condition of the streets in which they lived, the political values that surrounded them, and all the other influences that impinged on their short lives. Of course, many children experience broken homes, bad parents, squalid surroundings and video nasties without committing murder. Environmental factors are neither excuses nor explanations.

Nevertheless, nobody can read about the dismal, empty, broken lives and atrophied feelings of the two boys without concluding that they were let down by those responsible for their upbringing. They did not receive the love, guidance, discipline and education that they were owed by a civilised society. Their surroundings were shoddy, their role models inadequate. They were exposed to neglect and cruelty. Even if they had not committed that murder, they would probably have been in trouble later.

Their stories are, therefore, bound to be felt as an indictment of Britain today. While no society can banish all evil or control all deviants, a mature and relatively well-off country such as Britain could do better. We require, first, a firmer consensus on what children need in order to become useful members of society. Curiously, no training is considered necessary for the most difficult task that most people ever face: being a parent. One does not have to believe in the doctrine of original sin, or to read Lord of the Flies, to know that children are not born innocent angels, made evil only by society. They enter this world with impulses and desires that they need to learn to control.

Only the adult world can help them in that task. Broken homes, absent fathers and slack schools add enormously to the difficulties they face. And when they cannot cope, they often encounter social services disoriented by accusations of intervening both too much and too little. Ann Marie Thompson, mother of one of the murderers, is said to have feared to punish her children because she was 'scared stiff' of the social services.

Governments have it in their power to reduce some of these problems. Preaching about family values achieves nothing unless the appropriate policies are in place. John Patten rightly turned his attention yesterday to truancy, which is inadequately dealt with at present, especially, as is frequently the case, when the parents connive. But the Government's shameful neglect of nursery schools shows up the gulf between rhetoric and reality. American experience with nursery schools, particularly in deprived areas, shows that they can more than pay for themselves by reducing crime and unemployment in later life.

Yet even the Government cannot carry all the blame. Somewhere among the intangibles that define a nation there are deep fractures in Britain. To blame the Church is only marginally relevant. The clergy do not, on the whole, neglect to preach moral responsibility. If the Church is culpable, it is because it has allowed itself to lose its audience. Among British institutions, the only one that comes out well from this murder case is the much-maligned police force, which on this occasion conducted itself with exemplary efficiency, fairness and humanity. But the police entered after the murder. The clues to why it happened were planted earlier.