What's Gone Wrong? I was on the knife-edge of the Underclass

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The Independent Online
WHEN I WAS at school, I stuck a knife into another boy. Luckily for both of us, it hit him on the sternum, the bone which protects the chest, and penetrated no further. There was a lot of blood, but no severe damage.

I knifed that boy because I had a knife. I did not hate him, or even have a serious quarrel with him. I was not deprived but came from a stable and happy family, struggling to maintain a middle-class living standard but better off than most. Nobody had threatened me with injury or death, except German aircraft during the war, which I had found merely exhilarating. Apart from the constant beatings which were then routine in boarding schools, nobody had abused me.

But I had fallen in love with this knife. It was a North African dagger, with a handle of greenish cowhorn and decorated brass. It had belonged to the aunt of a friend; she had brought it back from Morocco and, casually, let me have it when she saw how I fancied it. For a few weeks it went with me everywhere, hidden beneath my shirt. I kept it under my pillow at night, an instrument for fantasies of heroic violence. I was a reckless boy of 14, and it was absolutely inevitable that, sooner or later, that knife would be used.

My shame about this has never gone away. Partly for the obvious reasons: I wounded, without excuse, a boy whom I might have killed (he grew up to become a respected art historian). But I was also ashamed to realise how expertly the English class system had saved me from worse consequences. I was a scholarship boy at an English public school, and for that stabbing I was gruesomely beaten. But if I had been at a school outside that wall of privilege I would have been dealt with by the law: a 'juvenile offender' pitched down the long chute leading to approved schools, youth custody, probation, the ineradicable branding as a bad lot.

The Prime Minister, invited to say something about violent children, hazarded that we should 'condemn a little more and understand a little less'. I am older than John Major, but those words make me 14 again. No, it would not have helped my case to have been more condemned and less understood for stabbing another boy, but would have made me more likely to do something of the kind again.

After little James Bulger was murdered earlier this month, Sandra Barwick went to Walton for the Independent and talked to the children there. They spoke shrewdly about each other, about the gangs of small boys who 'like to be thought dead 'ard'. Children, especially boys, do not simply internalise the social rules which are laid upon them. Instead, they regard those rules sceptically, from the outside, as 'their' laws. The more violently they are condemned for breaking those rules, the longer they will stay outside them - in mind, if not always in action.

We are passing through a period of monstrously artificial media uproars - stories which are exaggerated and inflated into 'issues' supposed to reveal this or that sickness of our society. One week it is mothers who go away and leave their children to fend for themselves at 'home alone' - and we see a desperate, tear- stained woman being gripped by a popular newspaper and crammed into the mincing-machine of a publicity stunt. Does she have a defence to make, an explanation? Possibly, but we are not allowed to know in case it spoils the story. Next week it is the killing of a child in Liverpool, and the agenda is switched again. Forget about a nation of child-neglecters: now we are a nation threatened by child-criminals. And again every sort of pundit or authority - churches, social workers, a prime minister - is obliged to stumble up to the platform and offer stupid, prefabricated platitudes about this week's 'crisis'.

The trick in such spasms of provoked anxiety is to look in the opposite direction. Who exactly wants the British public to understand less and condemn more? Who is encouraging us to demonise sections of our society as if they had been infiltrated by aliens - as if green Martian gunk already ran in their veins? What is this spectacle really about?

It is about the grand British engineering project of the 1990s, more ambitious than even the Channel tunnel - the construction of the Underclass. Much of the preparatory work has already been done. Unemployment has passed 3 million (or, as we used to say before they discovered how to cook the statistics, 4 million). Welfare payments have been reduced, inequality has been drastically increased, and an imaginative programme for poverty creation is on the way to completion. What remains, in the second phase, is to shift the whole bottom third of British society to these new foundations, by establishing that poverty, combined with idleness and savagery, is its natural and incurable condition.

Underclass is an American term, and has clear political implications. It does not simply mean the poor. It proposes that at the bottom of society there has accumulated a vicious, dependent culture which perpetuates its own misery. This underclass lives off welfare payments, which finance its chosen lifestyle of idleness and crime. To increase benefits or to improve housing and schools in underclass ghettos is therefore a misguided policy which makes the problem sharply worse, not better. The underclass is alienated from all decent values: two-parent families, hard work, honesty, kindness to children and small animals, non-smoking zones or fibrous diets. It is Other (Americans want to assume that it is black). It is, in short, so much the exact opposite of what we are and feel and stand for that it is Evil. There is a war beginning here, and it's them or us.

The shallowness and wickedness of this 'underclass' myth are obvious. In Victorian times, too, there were those who wanted to believe that poverty was the fault of the poor. But there were other Victorians who saw that the way out was to encourage new forms of collective self-help - trades unions, informal education networks - the whole web of working-class civil society which combined to provide elementary standards of health, nourishment, clothing, enlightenment, social insurance, housing, even dignified burial. It was understood then that the problem was too much individualism - the atomising consequences of economic misery - rather than too little.

Jeremy Seabrook writes in the current New Statesman that the conditions which brought about James Bulger's murder were 'a consequence of . . . an individualism so extreme that not only have the institutions of solidarity been all but destroyed, but the most precious bondings and associations between people have also been severely strained, the ties of kinship, blood and love'.

When I stabbed that boy, I was instantly made aware that I had also torn a rent in an interlace of other human beings who loved me or were interested in me. I was punished, certainly. But it was that outburst of anguished concern which from that moment began to undermine my favourite delusion - that I was a solitary outcast Ishmael, prowling armed through a wilderness.

Those other human beings could have behaved differently. They could have withheld 'understanding' and condemned a little more. But then, I think, I would not be writing this column today.