Jonathan Swift made a famous Modest Proposal in 1729 that the babies of the Irish poor should be eaten to prevent them growing up to a poverty-stricken life of crime. It was, of course, satirical. But nearly 300 years later I would like to make a modest proposal about babies that is almost as shocking, yet not at all satirical.
I’ve come reluctantly to think, especially after the senseless killing of Tom ap Rhys Pryce, that perhaps some babies, in the public interest and to prevent them growing up to a life of violence, should be forcibly taken from their mothers and adopted.
Freedom and compassion are two of the things I believe in most passionately and this proposal is entirely at odds with both, or so it seems. The image of little children being wrenched from the arms of their distraught mothers is one of the worst one can imagine. The recent re-showing of the famous film Cathy Come Home reminds us of the monstrous cruelty of a woman forced to give up her children by an autocratic state. It was particularly harrowing because Cathy and her husband were loving parents; their only “fault” was that they had no home. With somewhere to live they would clearly have been good parents.
However, the parents of some of the criminally violent young people of today are not like that at all. Some of them are not worthy of the name of mother or father. They beget and give birth to their unlucky babies but do little or nothing beyond that for them. Some of those babies, given the extreme disadvantages of their upbringing, will grow up to torment, hurt and kill.
All too often when a shocking murder is reported, it emerges that the killers had a background designed to produce such semi-psychotic violence; there were clearly problems in the backgrounds of teenagers Donnel Carty and Delano Brown, who stabbed Rhys Pryce. But remember, too, the stories behind the killers of so many other high-profile victims.
Murders like these are the worst of it, but a great deal of lesser violence goes on as well with ritual juking, shanking and boring — slang for knifing people. Sometimes it’s associated with robbery, sometimes with “disrespect”. At other times it is senseless — the result of family breakdown and the tragic personal disorders that follow.
Last week the Economic and Social Research Council published a study that found that violent street robbery is not motivated only by a desire for money or mobile phones — the old “rational choice” argument. Its research shows that often it’s driven by lust for a fight, to boost street cred or simply for kicks. “It’s for the fun,” said one offender. “’Cos the point of street robbery is to get them to fight back, innit? I’d give him a couple of slaps and tell him to fight back, yeah. If he won’t fight back, we just give him a kick and go.” Ap Rhys Jones did fight back. Now he is dead.
We could demand to know where the criminal justice system was in all this or why there are not police on the streets. But we don’t often demand an explanation from the parents. Children from orderly homes do not tend to go about the streets looking for a fight. It is the children of the feckless — there is no better word for it, I’m sorry to say — who go so tragically wrong.
I am not talking about parents or children who suffer from mental illness; they can’t be held responsible. I’m talking about parents who are pretty much in their right minds, when not high on drink and drugs, and who choose to neglect their children, and who, neglecting or abusing those they have already, go on to have more.
I mean parents who cannot be bothered to feed their children, to stay sober for them, to stay at home for them, to take them to school, to read to them, to take them to the doctor or the dentist. I mean never-married parents, with no standards, who have a string of partners coming and going, who have babies by different lovers, who are careless if those itinerants abuse their own children, who are running welfare scams or living by crime. What hope is there for their children?
Tony Blair was right when he said that it was possible with children at great risk to identify them early on. The predictors are clear. He was talking about social exclusion, but the same factors work for crime. He then talked about early intervention. All libertarians howled with outrage — including me. That’s because I am unimpressed by Sure Start, the government plan to reach the poorest, but which has failed because the worst and neediest mothers avoid the state wherever possible, because they’re often on some sort of scam or fear the powers of social workers.
I have had to change my mind. In theory anyone ought to be free to bring up her own child without interference. The idea of state snoopers seeking out the feckless is horrifying. But remember the descriptions of activists such as Camila Batmanghelidjh. She takes in children who haven’t eaten for days, who have nowhere to sleep, who have been forgotten by social services, who were born addicted or encouraged to take drugs by their parents. It cannot be right to leave defenceless babies with such parents: it is condemning them to a life of misery.
It is almost certainly condemning the rest of us to an increase in social disorder and violent crime. For every teenage murderer there are scores of delinquents who admire, fear and copy him. They grow up to abuse our freedoms, which is why we have a right to interfere with their parents.
It is one thing to identify such children; it is quite another to decide what to do. Most children at risk are fostered, but we know — thanks not least to Harriet Sergeant’s disturbing Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet on children in care — that the state makes a lousy foster parent, almost as bad as the feckless birth parents. Swift compulsory adoption is the answer. And adoption very early, of babies; the cognitive and emotional damage to such children is done in their first months. Yet fostering is still preferred to adoption and adoption takes far too long.
Now there’s a challenge to politicians: stop talking about the cycle of deprivation and break it by taking away the babies and giving them to loving adoptive parents. A modest proposal, and a difficult one, but the only realistic one.