Interview about Yob Nation

10 June 2009
The Big Issue

Why was it important for you to write Yob Nation?

I was attacked by a gang on a bus and this, together with my experiences as a teacher in various comprehensives, made me want to know the causes of gratuitous, pointless, petty violence and whether it was a growing problem or not.

Do you see any changes since it has been published, for either better or worse?

It’s got worse. Round the clock drinking has led to an increase in alcohol-related violence throughout the country, and, in some inner-city areas, there has been a marked increase in knife crime. The media continues to celebrate vulgar, coarse anti-social behaviour on TV, on the Internet, on magazines and in newspapers. Much of what I said in the book has been vindicated by some serious research conducted by bodies such as Unicef and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

You write about the yobbery at the highest ranks of business and politics and also about the need for more respect for authority. But how can we respect authority if those in it are yobs?

I think the rise of anti-social behaviour has coincided with the rise of a more brutal politics. In their bid to gain a grip on the media agenda, politicians of both sides have resorted to knee-jerk bullying and short-term, headline grabbing policies which has led to a breakdown in governance. Having researched the book, I was left with utter contempt for the Blair regime, which actively used the techniques of the yob – lying, bullying, deceiving, theatrical posturing – to take us to war with Iraq — surely the most disastrous political decision of the last fifty years.

Added to which, the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister was allowed to keep his job as the second most powerful person in the land after punching a man in the face and other misdemeanours sends a powerful signal to all of us: yobbery sends you to the top, yobbery triumphs.

Towards the end of the book, you focus on the way in which individual behaviour could be changed, by ASBOS and similar means. Are there any wider, institutional changes you would like to see in society as a whole?

Firstly, we need to sort out the alcohol industry. It has been expanding at more than 10% every year because of aggressive marketing techniques and town councils falling over backwards to have bars and clubs in their centres. All the statistics show that the explosion in binge drinking in the last decade has led to an explosion in anti-social behaviour. There should be a ban on alcohol advertising in all forms, and the round the clock drinking laws should be repealed.

We also need to improve services for parents and improve behaviour in schools. A recent Unicef report showed what I reveal in my book, we have the unhappiest children in Europe. It’s no surprise really that they are also the worst behaved; they are most likely to drink under-age, to have under-age sex, and to vandalise property. The school curriculum has really switched children off school: we need to be much more creative about the ways in which we encourage children to learn.

Above all, we need to have smaller secondary schools which are more forthright and honest about what goes on. The exclusion rate for schools larger than a 1000 pupils runs at 10%, while it’s 3% for schools less than 1000. Many children join gangs formed at secondary school and most schools prefer to ignore what is going on in the playground because it wouldn’t be good for their reputations. A lot of covering up goes on. Teachers who have been attacked by pupils are told shut up or lose their jobs because frequently children who are violent play the system and say that they’ve been attacked by the teacher in order to deflect attention away from themselves. Professionals in schools should be encouraged to research what is going on in the playground in a serious and systematic way and find out the truth of the situation. Researching my book made me realise the power of research: interviewing people is very illuminating and provides pathways out of the jungle. Not enough of it goes on in schools.

There seems to be a paradox here in that we have a government that seems intent on modifying all sorts of behaviour – smoking bans, speed cameras and so on – yet has presided over a general growth in what it terms anti-social behaviour. How would you account for this?

In two crucial areas, the government has been incompetent. For all the money it’s pumped into education, standards haven’t got better and behaviour has got worse, and it’s a more terrifying story with the criminal justice system, which is in a state of collapse. The courts can’t handle the number of cases coming before it and the prisons are overflowing. I was the victim of a minor assault in the last few weeks, when I phoned the police, they didn’t want to know because they’re so overwhelmed that they don’t deal with minor offences. For all it’s soundbites about being tough on crime, this government knows that the only thing that is stopping the country from sliding into chaos is people’s goodwill. All the yobs I spoke to weren’t frightened of being caught at all: they knew they’d get off, they know how to play the system.

You draw a distinction in the book between rights for perpetrators and rights for victims. But isn’t it the most basic element in a free society that everyone has common rights under the law when accused of a crime?

Just because I draw a distinction between the rights of perpetrators and victims, doesn’t mean I don’t think people have equal rights. My whole point is that victims and perpetrators should have equal rights. At the moment, things are predominantly stacked in favour of the perpetrator. Billions of pounds are pumped into paying for a crumbling social security system which attempts to "look after" perpetrators. Multiple agencies spend vast amounts of time and money trying to solve their problems. Virtually none is spent on the victims of those perpetrators. I think there should be a paradigm shift whereby resources are channelled into supporting the law-abiding majority rather than erroneously giving pointless time and resources to yobs who take the money and run.

It’s the poor who suffer the most in the current system. It’s their estates which are plagued by gangs, and yet they know nothing will be done. My travels around the country showed me this most powerfully: I visited areas in Wales, Scotland, the North and in London, and the story was the same. Poor people had the worst schools, the crummiest housing, and the least recourse to the law. Frequently, they were the victims of middle-class do-gooders who were reluctant to enforce an Asbo on a delinquent because they felt it wouldn’t be fair on him. In an ideal world, we should sack all the social workers and attendant bureaucrats and give the power back to local communities. Let them decide what to do with delinquents. In the areas where genuine solutions had been found, the local community was at the heart of the change. Often, they’d had to fight with the council to gain some kind of power and resources, but even when they’d received a little money to set up things like youth clubs and skateboard parks, and what have you, they’d managed to improve things. I visited one very deprived area where crime had dropped by 60% because the local community had started running a youth club.

Gordon Brown seems to take a communitarian approach to political life and is very keen to advertise his moral rectitude. What do you think he’ll do, if anything, about yob culture?

I’m not sure Brown will change things much. He likes issuing directives from Whitehall rather than returning power to local communities. For all his rhetoric about the "communitarian" approach, his policies have been rather Stalinist. His tax credit system has trapped thousands of people in relative poverty and low expectations: they see no point in aiming for a pay rise because they’ll lose all their tax credits. Under Brown’s stewardship of the Treasury, the division between the rich and the poor has got worse.

Yob is a nineteenth century word, or even earlier, and a lot of the descriptions of binge drinking culture in the book reminded me of the eighteenth century – “gin lane” and so on. In a way, isn’t the growth of yob culture a reversion to historical norms of public behaviour in Britain?

I look at this briefly in my book. Britain has a great history of yobbery. In the eighteenth century, the character of John Bull, the hard-drinking, red-faced thug personified colonial Britain. He was the kind of guy who drank a great deal and smashed up his enemies. For centuries we have been a nation at war — and continue to be so. That said, if you look carefully at the post-war period, you’ll find that the majority of communities were more peaceable in themselves than they are now. Children were able to play out in the streets, education was better, people were happier. We’ve become much wealthier but we’ve lost our ability to get on with each other. People have always got into fights and got drunk, but I think what is worrying now is that the codes of "respect" which regulated and contained that anti-social behaviour have been lost. In many areas, if you are not careful, a simple "cuss" can lead to a whole gang baying for your blood outside your door.

You’ve mentioned your own family in the book. How have your adventures in yob culture affected your own actions as a parent? What advice would you give to parents?

Be nice to your children, love them! Don’t ignore good behaviour. When a child is being good, praise them specifically, and say what it is you like about their behaviour. Remember, the greatest motivation a child can receive is parental praise. When they’re bad, ignore it. Don’t lose your top, shout and threaten, just ignore it. The worst punishment a child can receive is to be ignored by their parents. I think nowadays, parents are too keen shout and threaten children when they are behaving badly, and totally ignore their children when they’re being good.

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