Monday, July 5, 2010

Understanding and Condemnation

I recall being so angry when John Major said that, "we should condemn a little more and understand a little less" in relation to some awful crime. It summed up, for me, the essence of the narrow-minded mouthy MPs who know sod-all about criminals and who refuse to learn.

Understanding and condemnation are not, of necessity, opposites. There is no reason why a deeper understanding shouldn't lead to a more soundly based condemnation.

Or perhaps Major was reflecting an unspoken fear, that in gaining a deeper understanding of crime and criminals, we are inescapably faced with individual people. And real, genuine, three-dimensional individuals are often harder to despise than some populist caricature.

But at least it would be more honest and honesty in any discussion around criminal justice is something to be nourished and protected. As it is, we wade through a travesty of representations that lead to ignorance. And that ignorance leads to shoddy policy making, which itself leads to gross social harm and increased future crime.

Major's remark made me angry because, I think, it symbolised a knowing and deliberate refusal to engage with the truth.


  1. Ben, the Major quote may have been taken out of context by the journalists in the newspaper interview. Here is a quote from the Andrew Marr interview with John Major in 2008:

    "I said "back to basics" which was actually about traditional education and nothing to do with the matters that subsequently earned huge headlines. And when I said we condemn a little, should condemn a little more and understand a little less I was talking specifically about making sure very young children under the age of two or three actually understood there were boundaries and one didn't instinctively say oh well, isn't he lovely. Forget the fact that he's breaking all the crockery... But of course it was wholly misunderstood."

  2. Jimmy, Major made that comment about a week after the murder of Jamie Bulger in response to Tony Blair's use of the case to promote Labour's 'Tough on crime' credentials.

    (Bulger died on 12 Feb 1993 - Major made those comments in an interview with the Mail on Sunday on the 21 Feb 1993)

    Major's interview with Marr is utter bollocks - something Marr would have known if he has bothered to do any background research.

  3. Major's response was knee-jerk indignation over a twice in a century crime. Given that it was in a Daily Mail interview, it was a clear example of playing to the gallery.

    The Bulger murder said no more about contemporary society than the crimes of Mary Bell said about the time she lived; or the killing of a toddler by two boys from Stockport in 1861.

    Horrific though it was, it was allowed to become far more than it should have been - setting the tone for how we treat children who commit crimes and the entire youth justice system since. In this of course, the 'understand less, condemn more' crowd were given plenty of help by the tabloid press.

  4. Anon, you are right to point out how exceptional that child's death was. I am always amazed when I look at the graph of the English prison population how the rate at which it was increasing rose dramatically in 1993 and maintained that rate of increase since. That exceptional event was the trigger for a punative clampdown which has seen many more people sent to prison for longer.


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