Bowlby's contribution for an ASBO age

Will McMahon
Thursday, 1 March 2007

There are many lenses through which to view the `Forty-four juvenile thieves'. Perhaps the first is to see the document as an historical artefact; this is the moment where an essential truth appears to have been discovered about the antecedents of the harmful behaviour of troubling and troubled young people, with the recommendation that early and prolonged separation of a child from their main caregiver should be avoided at all costs.

This significant discovery was made at a point when Britain was going through the radical social transformation produced by a global war and its aftermath. The emergence of Bowlby's work amidst the maelstrom of post war angst and reconstruction impacted fundamentally on how it was received and perceived. The demobilization at the end of the Second World War engendered government policies that were essentially focused on returning men back to factories and women back to the home. Bowlby's conclusions were conscripted by some into a public narrative that was conservative and Durkheimian, which came to fruition in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the work of the American functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons. In short, the functional family had a mother at home, a father at work, and any deviation from the norm would open the gateway to youth criminality.

The findings were also refracted through the post war discourse concerning the impact of the conflict on the social order as a whole. It is not unusual during periods of rapid social change to have debates emerge about `child criminals' and `youth disorder'. In an editorial in April 1949, The Times discussed a `serious rise in delinquency among children' described by the Home Secretary in a memorandum sent to local authorities. The editorial suggested that `a happy and secure home life' is being `increasingly threatened by changes in the moral atmosphere of society'. This was code for latent traditionalist concerns that the transformation in expectation that women had experienced because of the necessities of war was, in peacetime, threatening to the social order.

Others sought to broaden the canvas further. Responding to a claim made by the Lord Chancellor, that parents were to blame for `the present increase in juvenile crime', Alan Mabereley, a consultant psychiatrist to Kent and Essex County Council, argued in The Times that the true cause lay in wartime evacuation, the raising of the school leaving age from fourteen to fifteen without proper resources, and the Labour Government's penchant for nationalization, which suggested that `If ownership is a sin, it cannot be very wrong to take . . .'. Thieving children were being egged on by a thieving Labour government.

For many, Bowlby became encased as a conservative and traditional thinker. When I began to read and discuss Bowlby in the mid 1990s I was repeatedly informed that this man was a key ideologue of those who wanted women back in the kitchen. One elderly relative told me that the reason she gave up work in the late 1950s was because it had been in all the papers that scientific research had shown women who went out to work would damage their children.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, while some of the assumptions and attitudes contained in `Forty-four thieves' can make one recoil (e.g., the `nagging mother'), clearing to one side the period expressions reveals a rational kernel that was to open the way to a materialist and very sympathetic interpretation of the lived human condition; one that permits a rendition of a mental state of the apparently `hard boiled', `affectionless character' with the words `Whatever we do, do not let us care too much for anyone. At all costs let us avoid any risk of allowing our hearts to be broken again' (my italics). Rather than its purpose being to stigmatize, the whole sense of Bowlby's paper is to ask society, in a reversal of Prime Minister John Major's dictum in the year that James Bulger died, to understand a little more and to condemn a little less.

This latter contrast suggests a second contemporary lens through which to view the `Forty-four thieves'; that of the dominant public policy narrative in relation to children, young people, and crime a decade after a government committed to tackling the causes of crime first took office. One of Labour's first acts in power, the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, removed the legal defence of doli incapax from legal statute. This reduced the age of criminal responsibility from fourteen to ten, suggesting that a child of ten, a teenager of fourteen, and a young adult of eighteen all have comparable understandings of what is right and wrong. This was to be a signal measure that began the encoding, into the body politic, of a punitive approach towards children and young people by the Labour government.

We now live in the age of the anti-social behaviour order, the vilified hoodie and Labour's visceral `Respect' agenda, where the public discourse led by government and headlined by the media focuses on the perils of gangs of young people hanging around on street corners ready to pounce. Where troubled and troubling children are `named and shamed' in national and local newspapers, and we are informed that `we', the `law abiding majority', need to get out on to the streets to help the government `crack down' on them, the `selfish minority'. There is not much room here for thinking about the broken hearts of affectionless characters.

It is unsurprising then that the adult public now view young people with suspicion. The report Youth Crime and Youth Justice, by Hough and Roberts (2004), which analyses the result of an authoritative 2003 Office of National Statistics survey on public opinion in England and Wales, notes that while the proportion of young offenders is 12%, and a fifth of `known crime suspects' in the Metropolitan Police area were young, 60% of the public believe that young people are responsible for 40% of all crime and over a quarter believe that young people are responsible for 60% or more of all crime. The government's own research shows that nearly 80% of all proceedings for criminal damage are brought against adults despite that offence being perceived to be associated with young people.

This is a general level of suspicion and intolerance of children and young people that is reflected in other research findings on children's recreation carried out in the same year. The Playday Survey found that 80% of children between ages seven and sixteen have been told off for playing outdoors, 50% said they had been shouted at for doing the same. The research also uncovered examples of intolerance to children and young people that can boggle the mind, including opposition by villagers in Oxfordshire to the erection of a netball hoop on the village green for fear that it would attract children; planning permission refusal, due to residents' objections, of a skateboard park in Cumbria `despite a 1500 signature petition and £100,000 raised through the efforts of local children', and an estate in the North West where 155 No Ball Games signs were put up on one housing estate where four out of five playgrounds had also been shut down. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Brian Paddick has argued `the behaviour by young people that was tolerated 20 or 30 years ago is now considered to be unacceptable' (Bennetto, 2005).

By comparison to the sturm und drang of Labour's current youth and justice policies, `Forty-four thieves' could be considered to be a quaint sepia image, but this would be a contemporary reflex rather than a proper assessment of Bowlby's work. Within `Forty-four thieves' can be seen an approach that sees `juvenile delinquency' as a public health problem treatable by a national network of centres for the prevention and cure; as a `problem of sociology and economics', one that needs to address the issues of `poverty, bad housing' and `lack of recreational facilities' as well as that of psychology. This third lens might help us to think of Bowlby as a radical and futuristic whole systems thinker for our times; one who has yet to properly influence policy makers.

It would allow us to take a view of how we came to have prison numbers at record levels of 80,000, with the number of young people locked up having gone up by 30% between 1994 and 2004. It might also encourage us to see the present as history and to ask `How is it that we arrived at this point?' By any measure, the period from 1975 to 1990 was one of periodic and significant social disorder. From the late 1970s whole sections of the British population experienced an accumulation of traumas. The dramatic cuts to public expenditure from 1975 onwards shattered the idea that Labour inevitably meant progress. This was followed by the country being transformed into a laboratory for monetarism in the early 1980s, with many communities losing industries that had promised a lifetime of employment. The first experiments produced a bout of nationwide rioting in the summer of 1981. Further trauma was experienced in the closure of mines employing 200,000 in the second half of the 1980s. The period culminated in a mass leveller riot in opposition to the poll tax in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990, which was described by the BBC as one of `the worst riots seen in the city for a century'.

A later accompaniment to social disorder was the legislated social disorganization of everyday life. In its drive to create a more individualistic, competitive, and self governing society, Thatcherism claimed to have set people free by changing the micro-political economy of almost every aspect of personal existence for the whole population. Legislative changes to nursery and schooling options, financing of university education, pension provision and personal social care for the elderly, the sick, and the mentally ill, and the mass sell-off of council housing and basic utility supplies had radically changed people's lives. Life was transformed by the elevation of `choice' as the motor force of service delivery. Rather than being an ally, your neighbour might now be viewed as a competitor for scarce social resources. At the global level of the welfare state there was a huge shift away from an ethos of universal social insurance and a collective guaranteed minimum towards personal and family obligation.

All that was solid about the post war welfare consensus, from lifelong employment to the welfare safety net, had been actively unravelled and seemed to have melted into air. The anxiety and insecurity created by these dramatic changes in economic and social policy were to have a profound impact on youth justice. As Peter Marris suggests in The Politics of Uncertainty (1996) in such circumstances the burden of uncertainty is redistributed downwards and increases the cumulative insecurities of the least powerful and most vulnerable in society and also `tends to maximize uncertainty for all, because it undermines the reciprocity of social relationships'. So, rather than seeing teenagers on the street as engaging in social activities, they became viewed as a source of anxiety and menace, a perspective reinforced by the measurement of `young people hanging around' as a key measure of `anti-social behaviour' in the Home Office British Crime Survey.

The tipping point for this punitive turn came after the resignation of Prime Minister Thatcher and before the watershed election of 1997. Much of the debate on crime and disorder was contaminated in the twilight years of Conservative rule by the death of two-year-old James Bulger at the hands of two children. Despite the infrequency of child murder, this event, the fateful first steps of which were captured on CCTV, and which signalled the re-emergence of `the child as a threat' to society (Daniel and Ivatts, 1998, p. 12), was to set the mood music for much of the law and order debate in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. The problem for the Conservatives was that the death had happened on their watch, and those ascribed with culpability were born under the star of Thatcherism. Despite calling on society to `to condemn a little more and understand a little less', John Major lost the sound bite war to then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair, who described the event as being `like hammer blows against the sleeping conscience of the country', and within this context popularized the third-way formula of being `tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime', a theme he had introduced only weeks before James Bulger's death. Labour, advised by those around President Clinton, had decided that a law and order crack-down was required to secure a voting base against the Conservatives and its home affairs policy papers reflected that view with titles such as `No more excuses' and `A quiet life'.

Bowlby suggests that `if one has suffered deprivation one's self, one will feel inclined to inflict equal suffering on others'. This is a rather blunt proposition, especially at the level of the individual, particularly when many who have suffered deprivation have chosen the route of solidarity with others, but it is not unknown for societies that have been through traumatic and disturbing events to turn on a readily identifiable and relatively powerless section of the population. It should be noted that none of this was inevitable, it was not impossible that the Labour could have seized the moment of electoral hegemony to enter into a dialogue with the public about how society might address the sources of trauma that lead young people to carry out a range of harmful acts. However, another more punitive route was chosen, that in the beginning was viewed by many as a product of `third way' electoral pragmatism but a decade later can clearly be seen as a core belief about criminal justice.

Viewing Bowlby through the lens of criminology, it is possible to see emerging at the beginning of the article the view that there is a small group of persistent offenders who are responsible for most crime. Bowlby references a 1930s `Home Office Report on Persistent Offenders' to this effect. One of the present Home Office's stock-in-trade claims is that half of all crime is committed by 100,000 known offenders. This is, as Richard Garside shows in Crime, Persistent Offenders and The Justice Gap (2004) a reassuring myth, but one that can be seductive. Seductive because it locates the causes of crime with those who are in the prison system and who for the most part enter it when young, on low incomes, and with mental health problems and who, it might not be too much of a leap to assume, have problems with affect regulation. Rather than the most harmful, the criminal justice system locks up those who are most vulnerable to capture and who can then be defined as the dangerous `other' but denied any meaningful therapeutic support while contained in its cells. It is no accident that one quarter of those currently in prison have been in the care of the state at some point in their lives and have suffered from significant separation. Gwyneth Boswell's mid 1990s research into Section 52 offenders showed strikingly high prevalence of separation, loss and abuse as children.

Seductive also because it can make the harms categorized as crime seem resolvable by administrative methods. If it is practicable to focus efforts on the 100,000, then it might be possible to have an effect on the overall level of crime. Moreover, if risk analysis can identify the antecedents of `criminal behaviour', then one could identify the children who are on the pathway to joining the 100,000. On 1 September 2006, it was reported in The Guardian that:

Tony Blair has said it is possible to identify problem children who could grow up to be a potential `menace to society' even before they are born. Setting out plans for state intervention to prevent babies born into high-risk families becoming problem teenagers of the future, the Prime Minister said teenage mothers could be forced to accept state help before giving birth, as part of a clampdown on antisocial behaviour.

It is important that Bowlby and the complexity of attachment theory are not once again seized upon and utilized by forces of social conservatism who would think it possible to be a latent criminal and on the wrong side of the law before birth.

While it may be politically convenient, there are many problems with an approach that attempts to identify a hard core of culprits responsible for social harm. One central flaw is that crime is much more prevalent than is generally acknowledged in public. The Prime Minister's former `blue skies' thinker and former Director General of the BBC, Lord Birt, prepared a confidential report for 10 Downing Street on reducing crime. The estimate he arrived at posed a major challenge to the government's approach to criminal justice. For a twelve-month period in 1999-2000, he estimated that `the real level of indictable offences was as high as 130 million'. This is around nine times the British Crime Survey estimate (a sample of 40,000 who are asked about their experience of crime) and nearly twenty-six times the police recorded crime figure.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister decided against publishing Lord Birt's report, only relenting following applications under the Freedom of Information Act. Other government researchers likewise came up with estimates far higher than `official' crime rates. A Home Office study by Brand and Price, published in 2000, put the figure at around 60 million offences in 1999-2000, roughly midway between Lord Birt's figure and the police and British Crime Survey figures. The Brand and Price study itself is not a `total crime' estimate; it is entirely possible that the figure tops 100 million.

There is clearly something more systemic afoot. As Karstedt and Farrall demonstrate in their November 2006 contribution to the British Journal of Criminology, `The moral economy of everyday crime', it is often the lauded hard working and middle class families that are helping to contribute to the epidemic of harmful behaviour in society. Whole population surveys have consistently shown that the experiences of rape and child abuse are phenomena spread across social class. The recent Farepak saving schemes scandal, where £40 million that belonged to low income families, who had saved all year for Christmas, simply disappeared into the financial ether, is also one demonstration that not everything that is very harmful is regarded as criminal. Such evidence indicates that the thesis that a small number of people, mainly the poor and the distressed at the bottom of the societal heap, are responsible for most crime is unsustainable, and puts into perspective the petty thieving and minor vandalism by young people that so exercises the government. This is not to say that such behaviour does not require attention - but it is of a different sort to that offered by criminal justice and much closer to the health approach suggested by Bowlby.

Having briefly viewed `Forty-four thieves' through the lenses of history, the social policy present, a possible future, and criminology, it seems curiously appropriate in this journal to discuss it from an individual perspective. On 14 January 1974, aged ten, I was taken into the central office of Tower Hamlets Social Services. I had been `a ward of court' since late 1970 after the death of my mother and the, unconnected, imprisonment of my father. I was now living with my maternal grandmother, Lillian Fredericks. After she died I remained in the care of the state, living in numerous homes and foster placements until I was eighteen. I know I was in the social service office on that day because I have recently accessed my care files. On a page with the heading `William McMahon' there is a neatly typed dated note by a social worker called Hal Studdert. It reads:

William brought to office by Mrs. Fredericks. She would not wait to see anyone and left him there. Saw William later on. He thinks it is the end of the road with his grandmother and seemed quite keen to go into a children's home. Says they had a row last night, although a lot of time things are all right. As she has treated two of his elder sisters in the same way, he thinks it has broken down. Arranged short term place in Dave Adams House. He went there after lunch. Late afternoon, Mrs. Fredericks rang to confirm that she has had enough of William. Apparently he blatantly stole a pound from one of her lodgers. `They are all thieves' was how she summed up the family.

Below the typewritten note there is a handwritten addition, initialed DF and dated 23 January 1974. It reads, `Mrs Fredericks rang to say that William had been round to see her and asked to go back, promised to be a good boy. She collected him.'


Bennetto, J. (2005), `Victor Meldrew syndrome' blamed for demonisation of young people', The Independent, 16 November, p. 16.
Brand, S., and Price, R. (2000), The economic and social costs of crime, Home Office Research Study 217, London: Home Office.
Daniel, P., and Ivatts, J. (1998), Children and Social Policy, London, Macmillan.
Garside, R. (2004). Crime, Persistent Offenders and the Justice Gap, London: Crime and Society Foundation.
Hough, M., and Roberts, J. (2004), Youth Crime and Youth Justice, London: Policy Press.
Karstedt, S., and Farrall, S. (2006), 'The moral economy of everyday crime', British Journal of Criminology, 46(6).
Marris, P. (1996). The Politics of Uncertainty: Attachment in Private and Public Life. London: Routledge.