The latest Madness of Crowds column from the New Statesman:
The age of criminal responsibility in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is – as has been remarked on many times in the past few weeks – almost the lowest in the EU.
A child of 10 can be convicted of a criminal offence everywhere in Britain with the exception of Scotland, where an eight-year-old can be found bang to rights. Probably, given the deep-seated Calvinism of some Scots, they wouldn’t mind hauling a foetus from the womb and putting it on trial.
Not only is there this deep-seated British belief in the moral culpability of children, but also the current government has abolished the presumption known as doli incapax, which meant that it was up to the prosecution to prove that a child under 14 knew the difference between right and wrong before he or she could be convicted. Why are we so keen on demonising our children in this fashion? The answer I think lies in the madness of the crowds, whose rage is whipped up by the tabloids into a hysterical fervour to rival that of any medieval witch-hunters.
At root, in the deep, dark 3am of the soul, we all know that we are all capable of the basest and most vile acts. Lord of the Flies isn’t on every GCSE reading list simply because it’s a thumping good read. Moreover, the Milgram experiment, conducted at Yale in the early 1960s, proved that ordinary people will subject those they believe to be innocent of any crime to sustained levels of violence purely because they are told to do so by those they assume to have some authority.
Mostly, our violence is restrained by raw sanction and canalised in acceptable ways: young men are sent off to kill other young men in distant lands, and this is glorified by the entire apparatus of state and society. Other young men kick seven kinds of shit out of each other on the football and rugby field, and this, too, is seen as irrefutably glorious. More disadvantaged young men punch each other in the head until they sustain brain damage, while older men in evening dress look on – it’s a grand sport.
Britain is a particularly inventive culture when it comes to this channelling and exteriorising of violence – and so successful at it that large numbers of us remain firmly wedded to the delusion that we aren’t simply contingently, but absolutely, law abiding. The lynch mobs who would like to see Jon Venables strung up seem on the face of it to be far removed from the MPs who voted to abolish doli incapax, but in fact they occupy positions on a single continuum.
Both groups cling to an irrational belief that distinguishing right from wrong is innate, intuitive and commonsensical, and the more that belief is challenged the more crazed they become. The lynch mob expresses its insanity as the righteous conviction that their collective violence will annul the impact of individual homicides – as if, were Venables to be spontaneously executed, James Bulger would be magically resurrected.
The parliamentarians express their insanity by mirroring the lynch mob, and so seek to annul violence by enacting more and more “criminal justice” laws. For both groups the end result is what the psychology trade terms “cognitive dissonance”; a painful state akin to that of lab rats subjected to continuous white noise while at the same time self-administering increasing doses of cocaine hydrochloride.
Britain’s woeful attitude towards children who commit crimes – just like its determination to send teenagers to kill Afghan peasants – can be seen as a successful strategy of scapegoating. After all, while it’s true that I can’t walk round my local park without seeing socially excluded young men goading their roid-enraged weapon dogs, the fact remains that, as societies go, this is a reasonably irenic one.
But that’s just the problem: this pragmatic ethical overview disavows the very nature of the crowd’s madness, which seeks not to restrain our worst collective impulses, but to inaugurate a new world of diamond geezers who love their mums and wouldn’t harm so much as a hair on a kiddie’s head. Ever. And if you so much as whisper a contradiction to this, just see what that gets you …
But seriously: it’s easy to identify the sentimental child-lovers who’d like to string up child malefactors, but how much more difficult it is to acknowledge that their irrationality is only our own writ large and ugly.