It is like a man with toothache. There is little point in asking him to think about the quantity theory of money. For the past few weeks, in British politics, Europe has been the aching molar. No-one has been able to concentrate on anything else.
Hence the surprise when the government announced a plan to deal with troublesome families. Some dismissed it as a gimmick. Others said that even if it were a good idea, £450 million would not be enough. Morerover, it all depended on cooperation with local authorities, likely to be a cumbersome process, vulnerable to sabotage. There were even suggestions that it was too authoritarian.
Let us start by dismissing those, for two reasons. First, the state has always been the carer of last resort. Obviously, it should be reluctant to intervene in private lives, but where there is palpable evidence of abuse and danger, the state has a duty to protect the child, Second, with troubled families, the government is usually the funder of first resort. These damaged families are almost certain to be on benefits. As the taxpayers' agent, the state is entitled – indeed, obliged – to require value for money.
Let us also be realistic when we speak of "families". In most cases, we are talking about a single mother: some hapless, ill-educated girl with children by different fathers, living in the most depressing circumstances. She had known that the local authority was obliged to provide her with a flat. Poor, silly creature – she thought it would be like the flats in the ads on telly, full of comfort, ease of life, happiness. Instead, she is on the fourteenth floor of a tower block. The lifts are often used as lavatories, which may explain why they often break down. The kids never stop crying. She does not know what to do. She never has any fun. She feels wretched all the time, despite the pills the doctor gives her.
If she had come across the concept of self-esteem, she would know that she did not have any. That may be why she is easy prey for any man who is kind to her for five minutes. Those brief relationships always end the same way, with the children frightened, while all she has to show for it are some fresh bruises and maybe another pregnancy.
The Daily Mail once took up the case of an underclass family who appeared to have been maltreated by the authorities. After further and better particulars, it turned out that the parents were to blame. Paul Dacre's reaction was characteristic. "Those people should not be allowed to bring up a f***ing hamster". They are not the only ones. In the week before Christmas, sentimentality comes easily. But this week and every week, there are a lot of children in circumstances which, were they animals, would lead to prosecutions for neglect.
That is the moral case for intervention. There is also a cold-eyed, practical argument which might have swayed Scrooge even before the ghosts appeared. These neglected children will emerge into adolescence full of anger: empty of education, love, discipline and order. No-one has ever treated them as if they were worth anything; no-one has given them legitimate grounds for self-esteem. So they will find escapism in drugs, an identity in gangs, an income from crime. A quarter of a million young males are responsible for half of all crime. Most of them are the products of troubled families. It follows that morality and self-interest should combine forces.
Reinforced by anger. All this is happening after more than sixty years of a so-called welfare state. Over those decades, successive governments have spent hundreds of billions – if not trillions – at current prices, to create and subsidise an underclass. For years, there has been an urgent need for radical reform.
It ought to be administered by a new type of social worker, although those already in post should be re-employed, if they meet the criteria. These would be: commonsense; stamina; a hard, practical intelligence; a command of budget cookery; compassion and a sense of humour, though those might often have to be concealed. Above all, there should be a desire to do good while remaining immune from the fatuities of do-goodery.
Back in the Seventies, there was a girl called Olga Deterding, who had the misfortune to inheit a great deal of money. Although she was clever and creative, and had spent time working with Albert Schweitzer in Africa, she never found a role in life and was beginning to drink herself to death. Her then boyfriend, David Pitt, the black Labour peer, tried to help. He encouraged her to do some social work and it started well, as she informed us all with great excitement over dinner. She had gone round to the flat to find two grimy, runny-nosed children and a sullen, slatterly mum. Olga did some galvanising. Brats in the bath, their clothes in the washing machine, she and mother to work, cooking a shepherd's pie. It all seemed easy.
Later, we heard the sequel. Olga went back a couple of days later. No mum: kids back to snotty noses and faces smeared with chocolate. "Where's Mummy?" "She won sixty quid [1976 money] on the bingo and she's gone to Brighton, but she left us some sweets". It emerged that in Brighton, the bingo halls stayed open longer, so mum had set off to make the family's fortune. She probably ended up having to hitch-hike back, perhaps paying for the lift with another bun in the oven. Beginning to despair, Olga enquired if there was anything left of the shepherd's pie. "In the kitchen". So it was, on the kitchen table. The cat was tucking in.
We need social workers with staying power: more Shaw's Major Barbara than Olga Deterding. This new cadre could be recruited from those leaving the armed forces or the police, from housewives who want another challenge now that the children are growing up, and from those whose career has ended due to redundancy but who still have plenty of energy and enthusiasm. They would run a regime of tough love. In exchange for her social security/unemployment benefits, the young mother would be required to sign a contract with the state. Under it, she would have to look after the children properly and send them to nursery school, when they are old enough. The social worker would teach the girl how to clean her flat and produce nourishing, wholesome meals. Effectively, the girl's life would be redirected by a surrogate parent. There would be powers to fine the girl up to a fiver a week, or to reward her with a similar sum. Without announcing this as the first objective, the social worker should help the girl to have some enjoyment out of life, while educating her about contraception. If her morale improved, everything would improve.
At the same time, there should be a drive to raise standards in schools, including school discipline. Truancy should never be tolerated. There should also be facilities for the rough games of old-fashioned boyhood. This does not just apply to the children of troubled families. It is not easy to bring up children in the middle of cities, when the roads are full of traffic. But we have to find ways of allowing children to play.
When they are a bit older, there is a lot to be said for getting them out of the city during school holidays. Set up the equivalent of American summer camps. Teach children to sail, ride, climb, shoot. What could be more fun for a nine-year old boy than shooting a rabbit, then cleaning and skinning it, then cooking and eating it. The countryside is coming down with rabbits. If small boys' destructive impulses were creatively deployed, there would be no reason for myxomatosis. Girls should have the same opportunity, and not just the cooking. But much of the energy needs to be directed to boys. Despite Kipling, they are the more dangerous sex. Civilisation does not come easily to young males. More boy scout troops, more sport, – including boxing – a larger cadet corps: give boys the chance to express their masculinity and earn respect in ordered, disciplined contexts.
The whole scheme would obviously cost a lot more than the money currently available, but if it drew on volunteers, churches et al, we are only dealing with low single billions: not a prodigious sum, once the economy recovers. The use of the word "investment" to describe increases in public expenditure merits Scrooge's dismissal. "Bah: humbug". Even so, a dramatic intervention to re-order the lives of the underclass would reduce the crime-rate and increase the sum of human happiness.
That does not just refer to the victims of crime. I have a barrister friend who says that at the end of a trial, he often has to brace himself. His client will have been convicted – justly – for a murder by stabbing. He will have been sentenced to serve a minimum of twenty years: longer than he has yet been alive. All that is beginning to sink in to this wholly uneducated, wholly unsocialised, barely articulate boy. Yet only nineteen or so years ago, he and his victim were gurgling babies, with some of the same angelic innocence as the Baby in the manger in Bethlehem. The subsequent degeneration cannot only be blamed on original sin. By ignoring the defects of the welfare state and its tendency to deteriorate into an ill-fare state, the respectable classes have acquiesced in the growth of an underclass and the multiplication of human misery. This must change.
Finally, if the rest of us are unable to sort out 120,000 troubled families, why do we bother to have a government? If we cannot bring our vast numerical superiority to bear, we all deserve to be mugged, robbed and murdered in our beds. Merry Christmas.