Modern living gets ever more complicated. Modern politics demands ever more simplistic soundbites.
David Cameron must have known that he risked stepping into a political minefield when he made a thoughtful speech on youth crime earlier this year. True to form, several commentators sought to patronise his views in the phrase ‘hug a hoodie’. Undeterred, last week he spoke again on the failure of the government’s antisocial behaviour order (ASBO) regime. This time, political opponents went into overdrive. However, it is true that louts do need to be loved. It is very difficult for any of us who have been brought up in a loving family with parents and siblings playing an important part in everyday life, to appreciate the desperate, unloved upbringing of many millions of children in Britain today.
There have been very few times in my life when I have felt lonely and frightened. In times of trouble I have always had relatives and friends to lean on. Two episodes (the death of my father and my divorce) have brought me lower than I had ever dreamt imaginable. Even with the support of friends and family at such difficult times I have felt utterly bereft and alone.
Imagine how it must feel for a young teenager to be lonely and afraid without the support of loved ones. I am sure it is nowhere near as rare as we might think. Many children in Britain today come from broken families where there is no affection or advice from their parents. They live in homes where their clothes will not be cleaned, no meals will be on the table and from a terrifyingly young age they will be expected to fend for themselves. In such a world it is easy to see how young boys in particular start hanging around in gangs, become disillusioned at school and turn to petty crime. You would need a pretty strong sense of self motivation to knuckle down to school work and instil in yourself a sense of discipline and behave with civility and consideration.
Politicians don’t have the answers to all, or even many, of these problems. Eye-catching initiatives, playing to the tabloid gallery, talk of being tough, and loading up the statute book with even more laws – few of which are ever properly implemented by the police – is clearly not the way forward. Yet this has been the policy of the last two decades, under Labour and Conservative governments, in relation to teenage delinquency. When we talk about the need to ‘love a lout’, it is not somehow a soft option. On the contrary, blood, sweat, tears and sheer commitment are required to turn around some of the most difficult young people in our society ? in many ways, the hardest option of all. Playing the blame game and handing out ASBOs will not solve these problems.
I believe that it is my party, the Conservatives, who are now willing to take the debate over teenage delinquency beyond a battle over the sternest punishments to be meted out. If this important advance in public discussion is not to become a one-day wonder headline, it is crucial that practical and workable suggestions are put forward about restoring our tearaway teenagers to mainstream society. Love may not be all we need, but everyone deserves to be loved, respected and valued.