Social Wrongs and Human Rights in Late Modern Britain: Social Exclusion, Crime Control, and Prospects for a Public Criminology

Article excerpt

Setting the Scene: New Labour, Old Anxieties

IN WAYS ECHOING THE LATE-VICTORIAN TRANSITION FROM THE 19TH TO THE 20TH century, the late-modern anxieties of fin-de-siecle and new-century Britain [1] coalesce around themes of social exclusion, fear of crime, and questions about the morality and waywardness of young people. Sociopolitical images of "falling standards" and a "decline in moral values" are commonly expressed in the otherwise competing discourses of the new Labour government and the Conservative opposition, and find further representation in news features and editorials, TV documentaries and talk shows. The recurrence of such perceptions is now well established (Pearson, 1983) and hence we should, perhaps, not be surprised to see them ascendant again. However, for many people, it was hoped that a new Labour government, elected with a dramatic majority in 1997, would bring a new political vision. Intimations were that "New Labour" (as it had restyled itself) would be committed to addressing social exclusion and "social wrongs" and to championing social justice and human rights. As the political parties and media sta rt to prepare for the next election, this essay reviews aspects of Labour's period of office, particularly in relation to criminal justice, and places developments and debates in recent historical, as well as comparative, contexts.

Since the early 1980s, complex concerns have repeatedly been addressed by Conservative and now New Labour administrations through appeals to nostalgia and promises to recreate the safety, security, and reasons to "feel good" of earlier decades (Young, 1999: 49-50). The Conservatives promised a "Back to Basics" return to the moral values of a more settled, orderly, and consensual past, but then faced an embarrassment of rich news stories about the moral failings of senior members of their own government. Under New Labour, Prime Minister Tony Blair has shown a fondness for speeches that political commentators compare to the kind of moralizing sermons one would expect to hear from the Church pulpit -- satisfyingly reassuring that values are still important, but nonthreatening in their implications for the converted of the congregation. Perhaps intended for a different audience, early on in its administration, New Labour's spin doctors and supportive media promoted the vision of a new Cool Britannia, an idea har king back to an earlier period, the 1960s. This was a time when postwar renewal was achieved and now Britain was experiencing cultural excitement and economic prosperity, coupled with (measured and controlled) liberal social reforms, all of which reflected well on the Labour government of the day.

It is obviously attractive to political parties to find that they can woo voters with comforting promises of a return to less-troubled times. Even New Labour's declaration that it is the party of "modernization" carefully adds that this is to be achieved by valuing and building upon the strengths of tradition. Such promises are contradictory and unrealistic. They appeal to images of the past that are now so reconstructed by memory and media that these have become edited versions of history, repackaged by a thriving nostalgia industry (McQuire, 1997). Inevitably, the realities of crime and victimization in the here and now remain unchanged, and invariably governments--of the Right and now the Left--turn to calls for "more policing, more law, more punishment" as "the answer." This social policy prescription for crime control represents one of the clearest areas in which political convergence between the Right and Left has occurred in British politics. In 1997, at his first Party Conference as home secretary of the new Labour government, Jack Straw told delegates: "We said we would make Labour the party of law and order. And we did." Since this title had previously been the proud claim of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s, some on the Left complained that they could see little difference between the criminal justice policies of the new government and those of their predecessors. …