Friday, March 12, 2010

House Points: Jon Venables, Ed Balls and Michael Gove

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

The material on the Stockport murder case of 1861 comes from an article by Gitta Sereny which was published in the Independent in 1995.

Modern times

House Points has reached an age when it is allowed to have fogeyish moments. And when it has them it argues that modern Britain no longer understands the distinction between adult and child.

The murder of James Bulger in 1993 showed this development at its starkest. Rather than being merciful because the perpetrators were children, the press and public were angrier. The judge, who allowed Thompson and Venables to be named and described them as being possessed of an “unparalleled evil and barbarity”, did his best to add to this mood.

If you doubt this is a modern development, look back to a murder with striking similarities to the Bulger case that took place in Stockport in 1861. Then the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder, and in passing sentence the judge said:

"I am afraid you have been very wicked, naughty boys ... I am going to send you to a place where you will have an opportunity of becoming good boys ... and I doubt not but that in time, when you come to understand the nature of the crime you have committed, you will repent of what you have done.”

He also expressed the hope that “if they behave themselves properly there, government might dismiss them before the full period of the sentence I am about to pass upon them expires".
This talk of repentance and goodness is foreign to us today precisely because we have lost confidence in ourselves as adults.

The Bulger case was mentioned in the Commons on Monday when Jack Straw answered an urgent question on the recall to prison of Jon Venables. But it was events earlier in the day that clinched it for my fogeyish theory.

Ed Balls and Michael Gove fell out over how many children receiving free school dinners who end up at Oxford or Cambridge. The fact that the point was being argued over by old boys of Nottingham High School and Robert Gordon’s College suggests that whatever the correct number is, it is not half enough.

And it was dreadful, childish stuff. Their row, which spilled over into later points of order, showed both participants in a poor light. It was two public school boys making public schoolboys of themselves.


Pete said...

Do you know the similar contemporary case in Norway as well? The BBC has a comparison of the two here The difference in treatment is startling:
In Norway the boys were treated as victims, not killers. The legal age for prosecution stands at 15 and so the children were free to return to kindergarten within a week of the incident occurring.
I'm not sure the difference is that Norwegians understand the difference between adults and children better than we do - but clearly there is a fundamental difference between our two societies somewhere. We seem to seek out, or be presented with, many opportunities for venting our anger, saying what is wrong and forming a consensus on what we are against. I see little or no debate, or consensus-building on what we see as good, how we might better care for the broken and vulnerable and build - or even agree on what we mean by - a good society.
(The Norwegian homicide rate is less than half of ours.)

Jonathan Calder said...

Yes I do know that case.

Laurence Lee, who was Jon Venables' solicitor, did a radio documentary on it. Though he was critical of the Gothic aspect of the trial of the British boys, he found the Norweigan insistence on not making a moral judgement about the children who had killed rather chilling.

I have nothing against moral judegement. My point was that we should treat children as children.

Iain Sharpe said...

On a different tack, is there not something insidious about the obsession with places at Oxford and Cambridge as if going to any other university is a sign of failure?

Jonathan Calder said...


That point was in there until the final edit.