Whodunit? The Sixties, of course Laying it all at the door of the Sixties

Blaming a liberal past for every murder is one way to avoid messy reality, argues Nick Cohen The right is misguided in blaming the devil's decade. Each crime is unique, argues Nick Cohen
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THE Daily Mail, cheerleader of the brutal right, is not usually noted for its concern for refugees. It portrays them as scroungers sneaking into the country to steal our jobs and benefits, bogus asylum seekers who deserve all the obstacles that Michael Howard (born Michael Hecht, son of a Jewish refugee from Romania) can invent to stop them getting past Heathrow immigration desks.

Yet last Monday the paper became quite nostalgic about the liberal British tradition of giving sanctuary to desperate strangers. Stevan Popovich was a refugee who fled from Yugoslavia in 1949 after the Serb Chetniks were defeated by Tito's partisans. Eight days ago, Mr Popovich, aged 74, got lost in the Chapeltown district of inner-city Leeds. He wound down his car window to ask for directions and allegedly was dragged out, robbed and killed when he tried to stop the thief driving away in his car. "Eastertide is a time of regeneration and of hope," said the Mail. "But today we should pause to ask what has become of the kinder and gentler Britain which gave refuge to him half a century ago."

A good question and one the right would answer by claiming that the Sixties, social workers, moral relativism and a dozen other Aunt Sallys have swept it away. No crime is too horrible to be turned to political advantage. The bodies of the dead children of Dunblane and the pitiable victims of Rosemary and Fred West have been snatched and turned into ammunition to be used in Britain's culture wars.

Never mind that the children of the Sixties are more likely to vote Conservative than their successors or, indeed, that the Conservatives they helped elect have been in power for what feels like an age. We have to believe that the Sixties was the devil's decade and the permissive society unleashed forces which 17 years of Conservative policies have been unable to subdue.

Even if there were a grain of truth in this argument, the use of one decade to explain acts of barbarism three decades later would still leave a stale taste in the mouth. Each crime is unique. To fit it to a wider social trend may, on occasion, be justified. But generalisation deprives the victim of individuality and the criminal of responsibility.

Once, it was the left that was inclined to excuse individual shortcomings ("society is to blame") - and the right never failed to mock the explanations that were advanced. Now, just like Marxists who attributed crime to the failings of capitalism, so the modern British right blames the permissive society or the welfare state.

Journalists and politicians have always been prone to shout about crime and the decline of civilisation, particularly after lunch. But their cries have become fiercer since the murder of James Bulger in 1993 provoked a sea change in attitudes to punishment among the opinion-forming classes.

Tony Blair, who was then Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said it was "a hammer-blow against the sleeping conscience of the country". Most newspapers agreed and watched with approval as Mr Blair used the death to shift Labour to a more populist stance on law and order. They applauded all the more loudly when the Conservatives responded to the challenge and the two parties began an arms race to see which could claim to be the toughest. Most independent experts have concluded that the most likely outcome will be a doubling of the prison population by 1998.

However genuine the expressions of horror over James Bulger's murder, his killing told the country no more (and no less) than that a dreadful killing had taken place. Between 15 and 20 juveniles are convicted of murder or manslaughter each year. Nearly all are aged between 14 and 17. There is no long-term rise in their number. Pre- pubescent killers, like the boys who killed James Bulger, are even rarer. They are oddities who appear on average once every two years. Their existence tells you as much about the state of British society as the 1987 hurricane tells you about the state of the weather. There are no trends, no conclusions to be drawn just the bleak comfortless reality of a dead body and a grieving family.

Yet the criminologists protested in vain. However irrational it may have been, James Bulger's murder symbolised the growth in crime and fear of crime and no statistics were going to change popular perceptions.

In the following years irrationality has been replaced with something close to mendacity. The history of major crimes has been and continues to be twisted to provide flimsy justifications for platitudinous prejudices. The mass sex abuse and murders committed by Rosemary and Fred West received spectacular treatment.

When the case ended, the Daily Mail knew where the guilt lay. The Wests and the majority of their victims came from dysfunctional families, it said. "The sort which have become ever more common since the permissive 1960s when both Wests grew up." This line of argument offers an interesting new plea of mitigation for future criminals - "I'm not to blame, my lord, I grew up in the Sixties" - which was developed by Peter Hitchens, a Daily Express commentator. Mr Hitchens was even more certain of the guilt of the children of the Sixties. "They wanted to be free. They thought the family was tyranny." When it was pointed out that, for the Wests' abused and murdered children, the family had indeed been a tyranny, Mr Hitchens was unrepentant. He replied that he considered the 1960s responsible for drugs, social breakdown, permissiveness and Dr Richard Beeching's decision to cut 5,000 miles of railway track (a response which conjures up a picture of the doctor slashing the network as the result of a bad acid trip).

The treatment of the Wests, however, was nothing compared to the transformation of Thomas Hamilton from the Dunblane mass murderer into a symbol of modern relativism which allows evil to flourish by refusing to condemn.

Another columnist, this time Simon Heffer of the Daily Mail, proclaimed that society had its share of the guilt. "We have started to go to the most insane lengths not to judge anyone at all," he wrote. "Thirty years ago a man like Hamilton would have been run out of every town in which he attempted to practise his bizarre habits. But now all manner of undesirable conduct is tolerated."

His newspaper agreed. In a leading article it said the Dunblane tragedy was a sign of a world in which "social workers and the politically correct" say we cannot be judgmental about other people's life style choices. Yet as everyone in Dunblane discovered, Hamilton came from a society which was all too willing to judge. His mother was put out to adoption when she was a baby to hide the shameful secret that she was born out of wedlock. Hamilton's father ran away when he was a child. To avoid a second scandal, his mother's adoptive parents adopted Hamilton as well. So successful was the deception, that he grew up thinking his mother was his sister and his adoptive grandparents were his parents.

Hamilton himself was obsessed by real and imagined fears that Dunblane gossips would judge him to be a homosexual with an unhealthy interest in the boys who came to his club. He did not sound like a prophet of permissiveness in the bizarre protestations of his innocence he sent to the Queen and leading politicians. On the contrary, some of his comments would not have been out of place in the Daily Mail. He only wanted to bring discipline to boys, he said, so they would not turn out to be thugs like the pair who killed James Bulger.

And what about the "politically correct" social workers? Well, the Central Regional Council and social services authority made attempts to ban Hamilton's boys' club from Dunblane schools. It was opposition from parents - and criticism from the local government ombudsman - that defeated their efforts.

In America, too, the right has taken to grave-robbing. In November Susan Smith, a single mother in the white, religious town of Union, Georgia, drowned her two children. She had been sexually abused as a girl and claimed she was disturbed because no one would marry her. Newt Gingrich, leader of the Republican right, said the case "reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things". Then he said: "The only way to get change is to vote Republican." Itemerged that Smith came from a staunchly Republican family.

Many liberals are in despair about the state of criminal justice policy. The major parties support restrictions on liberty. The 1960s, the welfare state, social workers, the relaxation of censorship, and homosexual law reform are being used to justify harsher and meaner laws.

But the failure of conservatives to make even the most cursory attempts to check their facts before turning suffering into propaganda suggests intellectual bankruptcy. In the end successful and coherent policies have to confront a messy reality the Gingrichs and Heffers of this world have no interest in facing.