Poor men and women are blamed for anti-social behaviour by
Labour. But violence is an attribute of men of all classes, and is
a product of gender conditioning, says Beatrix Campbell.
It is a year since former home secretary Jack Straw responded to
the football riots in Belgium by bemoaning local authorities’
failure to implement anti-social behaviour orders.
It did not seem to matter that the orders were designed to deal
with children, and in particular the children of poor parents
marooned in poverty, and that the rioters were neither children nor
poor. They were, in fact, well-resourced men with mobiles and money
enough for foreign travel and tickets.
For professionals working in the juvenile justice and family
welfare systems, Straw’s ire merely confirmed the collective
suspicion that the sound of his fury was more important than doing
something useful and relevant about both the problem of anti-social
behaviour in general and football riots in particular.
But the muddle was instructive. It told us that the government
was making up law and order as it went along, unconcerned,
apparently, that its own pronouncements weren’t joined up to its
It also told us, however, that the government’s law and order
politics are pre-occupied with the poor. The riots were a golden
opportunity for the government to address what everyone knows –
that crime and disorder do not belong to a particular class – but
rather to a particular gender.
Until relatively recently theorists who sought to explain
football hooliganism tried to assign the problem to the lower
orders who, it was claimed, brought their irrational and unfettered
beastliness to the respectable territory of the football
What we now know – though football fans still try to keep it a
secret – is that it is football culture itself rather than class
that is responsible for football violence. That culture is the
creation of a sport that sees itself as character-forming and
crucial to the construction not only of masculine identity but
Euro 2000 revealed that the visceral rivalries, hate-speak and
xenophobia that are the currency of football culture also sustain
football violence. This is, of course, a conversation we can’t have
in Britain. It’s not just that football is “kind of a guy thing”,
it’s that the sport enjoys passionate endorsement at the highest
levels of British society.
We know that Tony Blair bonded with Labour Party selectors in
Sedgefield over beer and football. We know that nothing comes
between football and his former press secretary Alastair Campbell.
And we know that football is what connects the chancellor of the
exchequer to popular culture.
These men bring to politics that passion for dominion that
football legitimates in popular culture, whether it is in the
playground, the neighbourhoods from hell or the politicians’ own
imaginary country – middle class, middle England.
They could, at a stroke, do something surprisingly radical about
the perceived problem of disorder and incivility by confronting
ordinary, everyday violence that lies at the core of the male
gender of all classes and creeds. But of course, they won’t.
Instead, the government’s anti-social behaviour agenda targets
poor children and young people and their parents. Or rather, their
Some of these troubled and troubling young people –
overwhelmingly boys – are only doing with their pain or distress
what, of course, other men do with their power: take control of
social space. Crime and chaos become a resource in conquering
space, and a context for making their identities.
They are entitled to expect that adult society will address
their griefs. But we are entitled to expect that both politicians
and professionals will address a bigger issue: the connections
between mainstream values and anti-social behaviour.
Football exemplifies the problem. Respectable fans may disavow
the hooligans, but they share the same pleasures and passions that
produce the hooligans.
The dilemma for the professionals who are supposed to respond to
anti-social behaviour by children is that they may have little
faith in the government’s heavy agenda, they certainly weren’t
consulted during the formation of it, but they have no alternative
than to take the money and run with it,
They’ll be doing their best to intervene in poor households
where violent children have become a danger to everyone around
them, including, sometimes, themselves, without any political and
professional consensus about the causes of the problem. At last,
many of these professionals sigh, there’s money around and plenty
of people on whom it needs to be spent.
We need more than individual casework, we need institutional
investment in childhood. But much of the current money will be
consumed by projects whose life will come to an end a year or so
after they’ve been born.
Investment in “inclusion” projects designed to discipline young
people and discourage incivility is significant but it is also
short-term. They will make do and mend, in the knowledge that much
of their effort will be a waste of time.
Poor children and their communities seem doomed to go on getting
poorer. And resources are being targeted at anti-social
individuals, not the contexts and cultures that make bullying and
disrespectful behaviours endemic, not to say, valorised, in our
society. The source of the anti-social behaviour, therefore,
remains invisible and untouchable.
Beatrix Campbell is a writer and a