Blame the market

    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
    pleases.

    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’
    Award.

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