Man is the godlike animal who created civilisation. Man is also the most bestial of the animals, and a constant threat to civilisation, which, as Michael Oakeshott reminds us, is only a collective dream. To prevent such sweet dreams from turning into nightmares, a civilised society must rest upon a comfortable bed of order. One crucial component of that order is the nurturing of children.
Human life has an irreducible quantum of tragedy, some of it caused by the errors of judgement and failures in concentration that occur every day on our roads. But there is an absolute difference between momentary lapses and a train crash which was predictable years in advance. One such crash occurred in Edlington earlier this year: the case of the boy torturers.
In trying to write about these events, there is a difficulty. Powerful words lose their impact through over-use. What is a strong word for disgrace? For this was a most damnable disgrace. Those two boys had been known to the social services for years. Well-paid and highly qualified persons had been responsible. What was the fruit of their qualifications, their salaries, their responsibilities? Two boys permanently out of control, who almost committed murder. Those children held authority in contempt. Given authority's despicable incompetence, who can blame them?
A generation ago, writing as Peter Simple, the great Michael Wharton delighted in mocking fashionable cant. One of his regular targets was "We are all guilty", a favourite platitude among the liberal clergy. But this is a moment to disregard Michael's counsel. We are all guilty – of acquiescing in arrangements which made Edlington possible. In other parts of the country, feral children and feral families are ruining their neighbours' lives while working up to the atrocity which will make them famous. Nothing is being done to prevent this, yet a solution is available.
The problem is easy to describe. In the midst of civilisation and affluence, we have allowed an underclass to come into being. Underclass life is based on seven deadly sins. First, the collapse of the family. Second, the collapse of fatherhood; Dad's sole role is impregnation. Third, the collapse of all inhibitions about producing children. Fourth, the collapse of the work ethic. Fifth, crime. Sixth, drugs. Seventh, and underpinning the lot, promiscuous welfare. That is the achievement of the British welfare state in the 21st century: hereditary idleness and crime, cascading down the generations: the prospect, world without end, of degenerates who are a menace to others – and to themselves, for most criminals rank high in the list of their own principal victims.
This may not be the ideal moment to solicit sympathy for the Edlington torturers, yet they deserve it. Human beings should not be brought up in the way that they were brought up. There was a time when, if photographed, they would have looked like Baby P: when they would have said "goo-goo" and stretched out their little hands for a cuddle: when they could have been rocked in a devoted mother's arms, in a home full of tenderness, lullabies and love.
It is not their fault that their mother was useless and her boyfriends worse: that the so-called social so-called services were criminally negligent: that every vestige of innocence was crushed out of them: that they were systematically neglected and brutalised until they became monsters. It is not their fault that those who were aware of the weaknesses of the ill-fare state have done nothing about them.
Yet the problem is not insoluble. For a start, the numbers are not too daunting. Half of all crime in this country is committed by 250,000 males between the age of 14 and 25. Multiply that number by parents and siblings, and even at the most pessimistic, it is hard to go above 1.5m. This is a crude calculation. Not all of those young criminals belong to the underclass, while to be fair to the underclass, some of its members are too lazy even to steal. But at my rough estimate, the problem is manageable. If the rest of us cannot deal with the depredations of a small minority, we deserve to be depredated.
The key to progress is early intervention. Almost every mother of a potential underclass child is on benefit. That gives the state the right to move in. In order to receive benefits, the mother should have to sign a contract, which would oblige her to bring up the child decently. Her performance should be monitored by a new cadre of social workers. This would not be recruited from those who had the Edlington torturers on their books for years, nor the ones who gave Baby P such care and attention. The aim would be to find a few thousand new social workers. They might be retiring from the armed forces or the police. They might be housewives whose own children were growing up. They could be people with a business background, taking early retirement, voluntary or involuntary. They should all have the seven saintly virtues. Energy, optimism, patience (which they are allowed to conceal when necessary): strength of character, determination, commonsense. Finally, love, though agape not eros, and which would often manifest itself as tough love. Their task would be to help a girl who is probably deeply unlovely on first acquaintance; help this frightened, unhappy, insecure kid with little upbringing and less education, who might well have been criminally abused; help this unfortunate creature, still really a child herself, to attain human dignity and to bring up her children as human beings; children who will have an education and eventually a job; children who can break the cycle of deprivation and degradation; children who can partake in the opportunity and heritage of being British.
Tough love would often be needed. When necessary, the social workers would impose a coercive regime, subjecting family life to close supervision. The girl-mother would forfeit her right to autonomy unless she was worthy of it. She would have to do what she was told unless she was prepared to renounce her benefits. In that case, the social workers would take a close interest in her ability to feed the baby.
Such arrangements would not sit easily with that cancerous growth upon the rule of law, human rights legislation: another argument for removing it. But the aim would never be repression for its own sake. The goal would be uplift, physical and moral.
There would be another helpful consequence. Once a female reaches the age of consent, it is impossible to stop her from exercising the right to reproduce. But if single teenage mothers on benefit became wards of the new social services, the instance of six babies by six fathers would drop and more children would be available for adoption.
These are radical proposals. But the treatment of those children in Edlington is an outrage. The hapless and generously funded complacency of so many social work departments is a stain on our nation. We should all be ashamed and angry. Radical: we should indeed resolve to root out the social evil of feral children. In a country with any pretence to civilisation, there is no alternative.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies