Friends of mine have a delightful and clever eight-year old boy. They cannot decide if their child really does still believe in Santa Claus or could he be pretending, to give them sentimental pleasure. He is almost sufficiently precocious to think like that, and he also enjoys occasional readings from a newspaper, especially happy stories about wildlife. Sometimes indeed, he will pick up a paper to look through it in search of interest.
So for the last few days, bits of the papers have had to be hidden away. He is about to be too old for Santa Claus. But he is much too young to cope with evil. It is hard enough for grown-ups to read about Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. The innocents must be protected from reading about the terrible treatment of that sweet-looking child. In recent decades, the word ‘diabolical’ has been co-opted for Cockney comedy; diabolical liberty and so on. This is unfortunate, for we still need a word of equivalent force to describe some of the horrors of the human condition.
It is more than a decade since Baby P suffered a similarly atrocious fate. At the time, there was a photograph of him smiling and stretching out his arms as if he was asking to be picked up, bounced on his mother’s knee and cuddled while she sang a lullaby. But as a journalist wrote at the time, he had been born into a nightmare of abuse, violence and despair. How many other children are spending this Advent in hellish conditions? How many vulnerable girls are still being groomed in Northern cities, where it seems that the authorities’ only response is to pass by on the other side?
Boris Johnson and other Ministers now want to turn outrage into action. There appears to be a double agenda. The first item is even longer sentences for – what is a word with no comic overtones? – monsters who murder children. This is an understandable reaction, but not a helpful one, In recent years, successive Governments have been too ready to invade the court-rooms, just as judges have been too ready to indulge a growing taste for the judicial review of legislation. In criminal trials, the judge hears the evidence. He and only he is in a position to give judgment and pass sentence. The danger is that the Attorney-General’s right to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal will be used to gratify populism. That sort of behaviour should have no place in our legal system.
Equally, Emma Tustin, the mother and murderess, has been sentenced to serve a minimum of 29 years. To be released after that, this human vermin would have to satisfy the Parole Board that it was safe to set her free. In her case, short of prolonged and hideous torture, no sentence could possibly inflict the equivalent of an eye for an eye. We can also surely rule out deterrence as a factor. Will other human vermin be saying to one another that it is safe to set their child on a slow and agonising journey to a ghastly death, because they would only get 29 years? I think not.
As part of her sentence, Tustin ought to be turned into the human equivalent of a laboratory rat (I apologise for the insult to rats). King Duncan told us that “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” but look what happened to him a few hours later. He should have tried harder. Tustin’s face is surprising. There are qualities which are not present in the average criminal’s mug-shot: intelligence plus, God help us, some apparent strength of character. So how was she debased into what she has now become? Was it nature or nurture? There should be attempts to find out.
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The second item on the PM’s agenda is a national enquiry. That could be useful, if it were sufficiently radical. Clearly mistakes were made by social workers and teachers, exacerbated by lockdown. But this problem has deep roots. Over the millennia, the family has been the finest form of social antibiotic. But from about 1960 onwards, the British family began to crumble. Especially in big cities, the consequences are all around us: in prisons, lunatic asylums, addiction centres, dole queues – in the so-called care homes, an Orwellian use of language, where family-less children receive a pathetic apology for familial order, care and love. (The greatest of these being love, one of the few instances where King James’s Bible would benefit from emendation.)
There seems no hope of restoring the primacy of families. So is it possible to find a substitute? There is a feisty Peeress called Louise Casey, who sems to be summoned to the colours whenever a Prime Minister wants to examine a social problem. Most recently, she has been in action against football hooligans. When she was in charge of the Troubled Families initiative, the estimate was that they numbered 120, 000.
If so, there is an obvious solution: social workers. By this I do not mean the current type. What is needed is a cadre of energetic, socially-minded but also when necessary tough-minded characters whose principal relevant qualification is life experience. They might be middle-aged mothers who no longer have enough to do, and want a stimulus beyond bridge or golf. They could be businessmen, just eased out of a senior role and unlikely to find another one, but who have made enough money and now want a new challenge. They could be soldiers, or indeed policemen.
They would all be given a case-load of underclass families most of whom – let us be realistic – would be single mothers who are unable to cope. The social workers’ job would be to organise their lives and then teach them to do that for themselves. Liaising with schools and nursery schools would be a crucial part of this. So would organising games facilities, especially for boys, to help them find a way of expressing their masculinity and acquiring status, without joining a gang.
None of this would be easy. Yet it could at least move events in the right direction. But we must remember that homo homini lupus, even in Advent. After all, the first Christmas was rapidly followed by the Massacre of the Innocents: “Rachel. weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
I apologise for an unseasonal thought and only wish that it were not true. But whatever we do to fight back against evil, there will always be more butchered children and more Rachels.