Britain is more police state than the benign nanny state of
popular myth, with the list of frowned-upon or banned activities
lengthening by the day. Anyone buying a pack of cigarettes pays the
government a hefty, on-the-spot fine (also known as tobacco duty).
Greedy bureaucracy favours a “fat tax” on fast foods (see the
Hitler Youth health manual – “Nutrition is not a private matter”).
The Barracuda Group pub chain has barred customers wearing certain
fashion labels (or “yob uniforms”), a move endorsed by police.
Antisocial Behaviour Orders (Asbos) are more misconceived progeny
of this culture.
In England and Wales, between 1999 and 2004, 2,455 Asbos were
issued with 42 refused although, area by area, the figures often
baffle logical assumption. For example, in the major urban
conurbations covered by Merseyside, South Yorkshire, West Midlands
and the Metropolitan Police, Asbos totalled 554, while Greater
Manchester alone notched up 422. Are Manchester people more
anarchic, or is the law applied more aggressively there?
The primary focus of Asbos appears to be young males – modern
society’s whipping boys – and while some are hooligans, it was ever
thus (the original Hooligans were a family of Irish bad-lads with a
hellcat mother). Today, an increasing number of girls also flout
the law. Why? What compels their behaviour into self-destructive
free fall? On the basis that nature abhors a vacuum, the answer may
be their empty lives and zero prospects.
My own young days were far from being halcyon, not least because
post-war Britain was a bleak place. While keeping up with the
Joneses was then as now a social imperative, consumer goods were so
scarce that neither we nor they had much to covet and so we relied
for personal satisfaction on learning, exploration and achievement,
not ownership of pointless objects.
Some four decades ago, Western capitalism realised that children
and teenagers formed a vast, untapped market. Now, youngsters are
so relentlessly exploited that, for many, self-belief and
self-validation entirely hinge on having the thing of the moment,
including promiscuous sex. Freud regarded consumerism as repressive
– keeping the masses in a state of perpetual, brain-numbing
material discontent leaves the ruling hierarchy free to do as it
Market forces breed social and political morons. The media
demonises our youth. The legislators react with knee-jerks.
Collectively, we become dangerously neurotic. Recently, a local
vicar fired a starting pistol at rooks befouling his church, and
precipitated a full-scale police alert. He was dumbfounded. Asbos
too have inherent potential for over-kill – in our youth-phobic
society, they let us clamp down for fear of what might happen. We
believe we live in tense times, where over-reaction may be
justified, yet history clearly shows society is never safe or
stable. The past is littered with examples of repression provoking
out-and-out rebellion – the natural response to unreasonable
curtailment of liberty. There is a comparison to be made with the
treatment of horses; after all, people are also animals.
Horses are wild, free-roaming creatures. But their contemporary
environment, because of a poisonous liaison between diminishing
space, growing ignorance and the compensation culture, is often
akin to imprisonment and so they increasingly exhibit serious
behavioural problems, including depression, neuroses and aggression
towards their handlers. Problematic horses can be subdued by drugs
and the whip, but nature will inevitably out.
Generally then, horses, like youngsters, are what we make of them –
unjust restrictions, criminalisation of normal behaviour, abuses
and cruelty propagate fear, diffuse distress, hostility and
aggression. Child abuse victims, repeating harshly learned lessons,
may grow up to be abusers and even killers. Using the law to hammer
youngsters for minor misdemeanours provokes some in to taking their
own lives, while many others, feeling they may as well be hung for
a sheep as for a lamb, become truly incorrigible.
Since 1990 Iran has executed 10 juveniles, most recently a girl of
16 for “acts incompatible with chastity”. Large numbers of
so-called “unmanageable” horses end up with a bullet in the brain.
What next for our own alienated youth? The noose?
Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’