A Tasting Menu

If you are new to the writings of Brother Ivo then you might care to to try this “Tasting Menu” to see whether this blog might become a regular stopping point on your travels through the internet.

They are drawn from the Archbishop Cranmer website archives and are selected to show the unpredictable range of what he might be writing about in future posts

Consider the elephant and be wise

Brother Ivo likes to offer an occasional piece which arrives from an odd perspective, and today he would invite readers to explore a little elephant psychology. It is not a field in which he claims any personal expertise, but life is infinitely fascinating and instructive.

His invitation to explore unfamiliar territory, however, will take us to issues not as far removed from the major preoccupations of this blog as may at first appear. There has been a lengthy study by Sussex University of African elephant herds, with a particular focus upon two groups. The first was the Kenyan population, which offered a stable control sample of normal and successful elephant behaviour. This was studied to ascertain its responses to a variety of challenges and stimuli. The second group was a South African herd which had been the subject of significant culling of the older animals during the 1970s and 80s.

The report on the BBC website is short and readable: the only thing that Brother Ivo notices is that our friends at the BBC have not begun integrating this study into a wider narrative about the support it offers to social conservatism amongst humans.

The herd which had lost the influence of elders and had its social patterns disrupted left juveniles to find their own ways of coping with uncertainty and stress. It was not a pretty picture. “African elephants’ decision-making abilities are left impaired by culling operations that ended decades ago,” University of Sussex research suggests. A study found that elephant herds that lost adults to culls during the 1970s and 1980s were less able to respond appropriately to other elephant calls.

Lead researcher Prof Karen McComb said the animals’ “social understanding” had been impaired by the loss of adults. The scientists from the University of Sussex say this is the first “systematic evidence that fundamental social skills may be significantly impaired by man-made disruption.

There is already evidence that the loss of these adult elephants had dramatic social consequences on South Africa’s elephants: the researchers describe these effects as akin to post traumatic stress disorder. In two protected areas in South Africa, Prof McComb told BBC News that “young, orphaned male elephants became hyper-aggressive and attacked and killed rhinoceroses… This really suggests that the breakdown in their social fabric, even though it occurred decades ago, has had a real effect on their decision-making processes.”

Doubtless lessons are being drawn about the impact upon nature of the culling activity determined by human agency, yet to limit the conclusions of the study to elephants alone surely misses the bigger picture.

Brother Ivo thanks the Sussex scientists for proving that not all obscure inquiry is self-indulgent and wasteful, for does their work not insist upon parallels being draw with the equally devastating culling of UK family life during those same years?

Social Conservatives have always believed that happy children and integrated communities at peace with themselves arise out of traditions handed down through the experience, wisdom and recollections of past generations. This is not to deny periodic evolutions and adjustments, but always there is a core of cultural stability and close inter-generational bonds. What works for elephants applies in equal, if not greater measure with humans.

What proves disruptive is equally instructive. It is surely no wonder to us that the impact of the rapid social changes of the latter 20th century have left many of our young in a similar condition of isolation, confusion, aggression and unhappiness. Many are separated from a parent and the deeper support and control exercised by grandparents and the wider family. As the US politician Rick Santorum wisely wrote: “It takes a family to raise a child.” He wrote that partly as a ripost to Hillary Clinton’s book It takes a Village, though even that idea – initially taken from an African proverb about child reading – is not wholly irrelevant; it simply misses the first priority that values are initially taught and best enforced within a family – as Brother Ivo would say – as God intended.

Happy children tend to live within concentric circles of bonds, with close family, extended family and friends and neighbours contributing, though usually in diminishing degree the further they stand from the central bonds. The state, with its varying attitudes and “here today gone tomorrow” teachers, social workers and counsellors, often tends to add to the vulnerable person’s sense of inconstancy and unreliability.

The support of the state is rarely enduring on a lifelong personal basis, and therein lies the difference. What it certainly does not take to raise a confident, socialised child is a commercially exploited, self-invented, self-regarding gang culture developed in an atmosphere of self-preservation. Too many of those lacking supportive families and not encultured on the streets are often to be found inventing their own culture in the isolation of their gaming consoles or the unboundaried social media. Many of these, detached from traditional family life – frequently but not exclusively within “the underclass” – are as damaged and disadvantaged as those elephant orphans whose parental culling through state policy, for doubtless well meaning purpose, has had long-term effects well beyond the expectation of those who planned the policy.

Just as animals have been disoriented by a disruption of the natural order, so the radical attack on traditional family life and social structures has left us with too many long-term victims of these social changes. They have low educational attainment and an increased incidence of substance abuse and self-harm. The trajectory of these problems began with the social revolutions of 40 years ago.

Amongst too many of our disengaged young, we see a misplaced self-reliance, a lack of empathy and a suspicion of those outside the narrow bounds of “yoof culture”. Much of this is excused, explained away, or even championed by opinion formers in many sectors of politics, the media and academia. They will not willingly join up the dots to connect the causal link between misconceived change of former years, and current ongoing problems.

What the elephant study teaches us is that the social disruption of families has long-term consequences, and these consequences were unforeseen by those who promoted them with short-term thinking. They never dreamed that their quick fixes might lead directly to learning disability, dysfunctional social interactions, fear responses, and aggression, the like of which we see all to often in our schools and courts. It may take such oblique but striking evidence from the natural world to give the “progressives” within our culture pause for thought about their continued promotion of “alternative” lifestyles. We can see the consequences of such policies from our past, and they are not attractive.

The contemplation of the implications of this study led Brother Ivo to another field.

Psychology, like economics, is far from an exact science, and frequently there are multiple factors at work which produce or mitigate the effects of the problem under consideration. Sometimes similar circumstances create varying responses because other more benign factors or influences intervene. Some victims of adverse circumstances, even within the same family or grouping, have compensating resilience. Some are blessed by the strength offered by faith, others are held back by a predisposition to depression or despair. Trends can usefully be identified, but in such areas of study prediction is a less than exact science and more akin to an art.

That said, insightful artists can also contribute to our understanding of the human – and animal – condition. The study of the elephants may remind readers of William Golding’s prescient study in adolescent tyranny, Lord of the Flies, which predicted similar effects upon young people traumatised and left to their own devices.

There is, however, an unanswered question from this study. The subjects were initially traumatised by the culling of the older generation. They suffered the secondary impact of loss of social bonds and controls. Which of these was the dominant event? Brother Ivo suspects it was the latter. As we enter the season of Remembrance, it is worth noting that the considerable impact of the loss of a generation of fathers, uncles and brothers from both World Wars was deep and heartfelt, yet not as societally disruptive as one might have predicted from modern psychological theory and methodology.

One suspects that the ties of extended family and the fortifying strength of faith and social institutions made the difference in keeping those earlier generations on the straight and narrow path. Those exposed to the horrors if war often did not speak of it, but returned to a context which supported, if not entirely healed. There may not have been modern-day counselling for the traumas suffered: social disruption and the acting out of internal pain was less prevalent than we see today. That may merit a little more reflection. Brother Ivo hopes to return to such themes as we remember our war dead.

One ought, however, to consider an alternative explanation for the observation of such studies, whether animal or human. If we discount the loss of social structures (which Brother Ivo certainly does not), one is left with considering the impact of psychological trauma in isolation of the loss of loved ones and the events causing it. This is a wider question.

Many children will suffer such loss within our own society. Additionally, we are accepting vulnerable people into our society, some from very different cultures which most of us (not least our politicians) do not understand. It may be a moral and noble policy, but it is not consequence free. What may flow from the importation of displaced, traumatised asylum seekers from war zones is a most troublesome area of concern for Brother Ivo. He does not wish to seem to lack compassion, but feels compelled to flag up a potential problem to which he does not currently know the answer. He suspects few others do either.

As Christians, we need to be our brother’s keeper: we should not pass by on the other side. Yet as Margaret Thatcher correctly observed, the Good Samaritan gave real support to the victim he helped, offering ongoing concern and applying resources to address the continuing needs until health returned. He did not foist the hapless victim on the nearest social services and walk away.

There may be unforeseen risks and problematic consequences with a policy of sentimental liberality followed by benign neglect and isolation. Admitting people damaged by trauma would appear to have greater potential sequelae than we may think. If we are to continue an open-door policy towards genuine asylum seekers, the implication is that we need to be more sophisticated and comprehensive in identifying their needs and how we mitigate the longer term challenges they will face as they try to adapt to an unfamiliar life amongst us.

As an old friend used to say, “Being human isn’t easy.”

Being Christian certainly isn’t.


Poking the Trinity

Brother Ivo is travelling.  Just before leaving for the airport he thought he might take some light reading: light as in ‘low weight’, rather than trivial, and so slipped into his jacket pocket a slim volume which he thought he might enjoy re-reading on the journey. And so it has proved. Within the first few pages he realised that there are some books one reads too early, some that are encountered at an apposite time of one’s life, and doubtless a few that come to our attention too late to be of much value. Then there are those that repay re-reading for a variety of reasons. This one is worth the reconnection.

Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow explores a short incident that occurred in 1946 when two philosophers, Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, debated for the first and only time in a small room in Kings College Cambridge. There were about thirty people present, many of whom went on to become the great and the good of the philosophical world, though Betrand Russell already had that distinction. Sir John Vinelott went on to make his name as a High Court Judge. The ‘witnesses’ to the event were therefore all of high intellect.

During the course of the discussions, there is some certainty that Wittgenstein held, perhaps lifted, a poker from the fire. He left the room. Popper made a remark that visiting lecturers should not be threatened with pokers, but beyond this, what happened is a matter of uncertainty and conjecture of some vehemence between students/supporters of the principal protagonists.

Within weeks, in those pre-Internet days, people on the other side of the world were asking those present if it were true that these patriarchs of rationalism had threatened each other with red hot pokers!

It is an entertaining read, and the first time he read it, Brother Ivo used it as an example of how we ought to afford the witnesses to the resurrection a degree of latitude in their apparently varied accounts of what was seen, as recorded in the various gospel narratives. If rationalist philosophers and their followers have such difficulty in constructing an agreed account over an incident witnessed by perhaps 30 of the worlds foremost intellectuals, we can surely cut a little slack for the women and the unlettered disciples who were witnessing an unprecedented event for the very first time.

The authors point out that the Cambridge Moral Science Society was comprised of those ‘professionally concerned with theories of epistemology (the grounds of knowledge), understanding and truth’. Yet the conflicting testimonies ‘concerned a sequence of events where those who disagreed were eye witnesses on critical questions of fact’.

The second reading of this book occurred shortly after Trinity Sunday, and has again thrown light on a problem Brother Ivo has been considering but in an entirely different context. This time, Brother Ivo already knew the main thrust of the argument and was perhaps more able to take note of contextual matters. He specifically noted that the debate centred upon the question raised by the paper produced for discussion by Popper: ‘Are there philosophical problems?’

Popper thought there were were – and, by implication, thought that it was worth putting in the effort to solve them, whereas Wittgenstein regarded such questions only as ‘puzzles’, a matter of a significantly different order of importance.

This took Brother Ivo back to Trinity Sunday.

His travels had absented him from his Church for a few weeks, so he was foolhardy enough to offer penance by volunteering to teach on Trinity Sunday to his junior Church – some as young as five.

Communicants and readers can probably verify for themselves – by asking their own preachers – that Trinity Sunday is probably what our musician friends might call the ‘toughest gig’ of the year. Trinity Sunday for five-year-olds is as close to theological suicide as one gets.

Matters were made worse by a wonderful satire which Brother Ivo encountered. Plainly, Trinity is a subject fraught with difficulty for the preacher seeking a simple analogy.

Yet Brother Ivo’s reading may help to put aside any of the unsatisfactory preaching which may have left readers and communicants unsatisfied. Perhaps we need to step back and take one or two of Wittgenstein’s propositions seriously.

It was he who identified the problem of the ‘duck/rabbit‘, whereby we can talk about the image containing two interpretations, but fundamentally one cannot make explain or persuade another person to ‘see’ it. “You can either see the duality within you can’t.” Some only see the duck, some the rabbit, and others both. There is no logic to take one from one interpretation to another beyond showing the image and encouraging another to look/see.

Wittgenstein similarly advised that if one wishes to know if a person is religious, ‘don’t look at what he says, look at what he does’. Communicants will recognise – ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’.

It was this approach that Brother Ivo unwittingly took with his children. He did not attempt to ‘solve’ the problem of the Trinity. but ‘showed’ ideas.

St Patrick’s examples addressed the particular problem for those living in a world of multiple deities. To the Greeks and Romans, there was a multiple-god default logic/assumption, and so any Trinitarian debate that risked letting such a mindset back in through the back door was fiercely resisted by the Early Church. The Athanasian Creed grasped that problem by embracing mystery, and that is not rationally dishonest.

Wittgenstein said: “I know that queer things happen in this world. It’s one one the few things I’ve really learned in my life.” The mystery of the Trinity becomes less daunting when one embraces such thinking and extrapolates it beyond the temporal.

Yet ‘showing’ also has its uses when one places this most mysterious of Christian doctrines in its true philosophical place.

The early Church was a rag-bag made up of believers in far flung communities all trying to make sense of a narrative infinitely more complex than what transpired in a Cambridge upper room in 1946. Those of a strongly Jewish background would always gravitate to an understanding of God rooted in the scriptures with which they had grown up. The Creator-Father was always uppermost in their thinking.

Those who knew and had personal experience of Jesus had heard him plainly (even ‘blasphemously’) identify himself with Yahweh – “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” Those followers had a fundamentally different mental picture from those of a more conservative Jewish mindset. Then again another grouping of post-Pentecost believers were very familiar with the Holy Spirit, the promised Comforter, and they were not about to discount that revelation as in any sense ‘second best’.

Each had received a ‘showing’ of the Almighty. How could this be reconciled in doctrine? By treating it as a substantial problem the Early Church expended much energy and passion, and the outcome is the various creeds with which we are familiar.

Maybe it has taken Wittgenstein to offer the solution. There is actually no problem for God: it is indeed as unknowable to us as what happened that evening when Wittgenstein did or did not threaten Popper with a poker. Maybe all these efforts to unify the Trinity are no more than a human linguistic puzzle, of no greater practical importance, significance or interest than the precise mathematical value of Pi. We ordinary folk find an approximation more than serviceable for our everyday needs.

In Tom Stoppard’s film Shakespeare in Love the coming together of a theatrical venture is constantly in question and increasingly unlikely, yet the shabby impresario Henshaw keeps the faith and constantly reassures the doubters that it will all come together successfully in the end. Repeatedly asked why, he answers simply: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery – but it always does.”

Brother Ivo has a similar disorganised faith like Henshaw. He can show you the great things that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have done, and when the rationalist asks him: “How can this be? How could there be three-in-one and one-in-three? How can this add up?”, it will be a toss-up as to whether he answers that the question is a puzzle, not a problem, or, alternatively –  with truth and conviction – “I don’t know. It’s a mystery – but it always does.”

Slaves to our past

From Brother Ivo:

Whether we like it or not, Britain has a colonial past, rooted in circumstances, values and world-views utterly different to those we have today. We have no personal responsibility for it, and cannot change it even if we wanted to. If we were afforded the opportunity to time-travel and interfere with that history, there is no guarantee that we would like the resulting outcome any better than what we have today. It ought to be a field of study approached with scholarly caution.

As a contribution to our understanding of that past, the University College of London has published online a searchable database detailing all the individuals and companies which were compensated at the time of the abolition of slavery, and that publication has brought the class warriors out in force.


No sooner had The Independent carried the story on Monday than we had Lee Jasper tweeting his right to be compensated for the chain of events which led him to being inexplicably appointed by Ken Livingstone to be London’s Director of Policing and Equalities, on a publicly-funded salary of £127,000. Brother Ivo agrees there is an outrage here, though not perhaps in the way Mr Jasper thinks.

Slavery is a very touchy issue in a multi-cultural society. It generates more heat than light when there is a poor grasp of the history. Sometimes the unlikely turn up as heroes and vice versa. There are significant ironies.

Because slavery has existed throughout history in societies as diverse as Africa Mexico, China, New Zealand and the Middle East, it was used by philosophers from Aristotle to Aquinas to Locke to develop the idea of ‘Natural Law’. Every known society seemed to have knowledge of common prohibitions such as murder and incest, and institutions such as marriage, kingship, and slavery. The very acceptance of such common standards of behaviour resulted in the Natural Law theory which is the forerunner of ‘Universal Human Rights’. It is not surprising that such commonly-identified features of human society such as slavery were expressed in religious thought, not least in Christianity.

Slave references abound in the Old Testament without objection, and in First Epistle of Peter, slaves are advised to obey their masters. Similarly in Paul‘s Epistle to Philemon, the Apostle discusses his need for services of the slave Onesimus without ever suggesting that the institution which bound him to his master Philemon was in any sense wrong or contrary to the will of God. Jesus never spoke against slavery in plain terms: that biblical reticence fortified many slave-owning apologists.

It would be wrong, however, to regard slavery as in any sense limited to Christian or Western thought or custom. The very term ‘slave’ derives from the Balkan peoples who were the greatest source of slaves in history, being preyed upon for centuries by the Ottoman Empire. Cassanova records seducing a Greek slave girl; North African corsairs took slaves from the coastal villages of Devon and Cornwall; and the African slave trade developed from the sale of captives of war both within Africa and beyond.

If there was an early exception to this universality it perhaps began in England, where the Archbishop of Canterbury St Anselm convened a Council of Westminster in 1102 to differentiate the status of serfs from slaves. Serfs may have been tied to the land by feudal obligation, but they could own property and had rights. Free men were more productive than slaves and could contribute in taxes – a concept that is often overlooked by modern politicians.

The Council declared: ‘Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.’

The status of slaves brought from abroad was considered by the English Courts in 1569 in Cartwright’s case, where the defendant was observed beating another and the Court rejected his defence that the man was a Russian slave he had imported, and so not to be regarded as a legal ‘person’, but rather as ‘property’ to be treated as he wished. The Court gave that short-shrift and bequeathed to us the splendid phrase ‘that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in’. In essence, once landed, the slave was free.

The law in the colonies was more equivocal, but the principle in Cartwright’s case was developed in Somersett’s case When Lord Mansfield, a highly-conservative Judge who has been called the Father of the modern Tory Party, declared: “The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

No doubt Mr Jasper would regret the Judge’s lack of diversity-training, but Brother Ivo still applauds his moral judgment.

It may not have escaped notice that the Judge took a strict constructionist approach to judicial activity. This contrasts with the next step in the story.

The disinclination to uphold slavery had always had a connection to England’s Christian heritage. It is worth noting that the Council of Koblenz (922) declared that if someone sold a Christian into slavery they would be guilty of murder. William the Conqueror had also declared: ‘We forbid anyone to sell a Christian into a foreign land and especially to heathens. For let great care be taken lest their souls for which Christ gave His life be sold into damnation.’

It was that divide between the Christian and non-Christian that was exploited at the beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but the legal decision which established the legality of slavery in the New World was taken in circumstances that confound modern-day assumptions about who would hold what attitudes towards slavery.

In 1665, Anthony Johnson brought a legal suit against his indentured servant John Casor to enforce an agreement whereby Casor was said to have bound himself to Johnson for life. The success of that suit, determined by a judge (not any legislative body) established for the first time in law the legality of slavery in the British colonies.

It is a terrible irony that both Johnson and Casor were black and Johnson a former slave himself.

It is easy to assume that former slaves would despise the institution which oppressed them, yet many did not and became slave owners when freed. John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, was a slave-trader who was himself enslaved for a period in Africa.

Following his Christian conversion, independent of that slavery experience, Newton worked with Thomas Clarkson of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, providing the necessary first-hand evidence of the trade. He was perhaps the first significant ‘whistle-blower’. Eventually, the Conservative MP (he means ‘Tory’ – Ed.) and Evangelical William Wilberforce brought the legislation to fruition.

When Britain abolished the international slave-trade in 1807, it was a major affront to modern liberals. It was a unilateral act of aggressive foreign policy. It was a violation of International Law and objected to as such. Britain even engaged in regime change, deposing the King of Lagos, a key player in the transatlantic slave trade. The abolition should be seen as a complete Neo-Con forerunner of the war in Iraq.

Reading the UCL database, some have noted the mechanism of compensating the former owners and phasing in the liberation with a period of apprenticeships. The transition in societies without a welfare state was always going to be risky. In the lead-up to the American Civil War, a Southern politician graphically summed up the problem with ‘We have a wolf by the ears’. Releasing that grip was a serious concern. There was a real fear of slave revolt and bloody conflict, both of which had happened on several occasions with slave risings. The British managed their transition by compromise, compensation and without the 600,000 dead of the American Civil War.

I am sure Mr Jasper might enjoy baiting David Cameron or Douglas Hogg, both of whose family appears on the compensated list. We all might enjoy the sight of Mr Jasper locking horns with Richard Dawkins, whose family similarly benefitted. He might also go after both Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom have slave-owning forebears.

If any of you happen to be a descendant of Anthony Johnson, however, Brother Ivo fears that it might be prudent to check your home contents legal insurance cover in case Mr Jasper gets really started.

The reparations debate has begun, and its ambit might be wide-ranging. In 2009, the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria wrote an open letter to African chieftains calling for an apology for their role in the Atlantic slave-trade: “We cannot continue to blame the white men, as Africans, particularly the traditional rulers, are not blameless. In view of the fact that the Americans and Europe have accepted the cruelty of their roles and have forcefully apologised, it would be logical, reasonable and humbling if African traditional rulers accept blame and formally apologise to the descendants of the victims of their collaborative and exploitative slave.”

Brother Ivo sees the argument as fraught with complexity and counter claims – just think of the legal fees!

It is easy to judge figures of history, but one hopes that Mr Jasper will be a little less keen to seek his money. He might be better directing his energies and indignation by campaigning against the continuing slave trade. In a more reflective mood, he might care to offer prayers for the integrity of the unlikely heroes – the Saintly Anselm, the principled High Tory Judge, the Evangelical Tory MP, and the rough seaman who paid the price for other’s convictions and liberty.

He should publicly pay tribute to the men (British and African) of the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron which did the dirty work and suppressed the slave-trade. Perhaps Mr Jasper might consider seeking a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize for these truly forgotten heroes, or even establishing a fund and inviting the families on the compensation list to contribute a little for a suitable memorial. We have an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Michael Gove and the care of vulnerable children

When Michael Gove raised his deep disquiet at the way “confidentiality of data” had been restrictively administered, to the detriment of child protection, he did good service to the young within Local Authority care. No doubt he will hold meetings, ask questions and issue instructions.

He is an intellectually rigorous man, and Brother Ivo hopes that he will begin to appreciate that such difficulties arise within a wider context, both within his Department’s culture, and that of our society. Both need to be changed, which is easier said than done. Our public care for vulnerable children is not yielding happy or cost effective results, and Mr Gove will need to dig deep and think harder if he wishes to uncover the full extent of our failures and develop the changes necessary to advance the interests of the young.

The Secretary of State’s outrage was triggered when he learnt that his own Department had difficulty in identifying the localities of children’s homes for which it was responsible, whereas the paedophile networks had managed to construct links to ensure that the information they needed was readily available and passed between them countrywide for their vile purposes.

“Mr Gove described a situation where it was very difficult to gather basic information about care homes and the children in them. He said he believed this could have hindered the police and helped individuals and groups seeking to harm children.”

“In the name of ‘protecting children’ by officially ‘protecting’ their information, we had ended up helping the very people we were supposed to be protecting them from.”

Mr Gove is characteristically blunt, and yet because he does not have direct experience in this area, he has yet to grapple with the other dimensions of the problem.

Not only have well-meaning ‘confidentiality’ principles compromised the safety of young people, so have ‘Children’s Rights’.

Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Our children are being let down by our public interventions in their lives, but this deficiency is not just a failure of administration; neither is it a consequence of insufficiently defined targets or performance indicators. It is a signifier of a much wider neglect of childhood brought about by many who have sought to re-define family values and what it means to be a child.

Even in the best regulated families, childhood has changed. Our little ones have a very different experience of nurture from their parents and grandparents: they may not have prolonged care by their mothers and extended family during infancy; their parents have become more motivated to ‘fulfill themselves’, which may mean extended time at work and a greater readiness to bail out of troubled marriages, if they ever had them. To compensate our children for these losses, we have offered them extended public interventions and ‘Rights’.

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Jesus once asked. We might bear this in mind as we see what responses we make to the young.

When families fall into stress and inadequacy – which they do for a variety of accidental and cultural reasons – young people suffer from the inability of their parents to prioritise for them. Responsible parenting gets lost as parents fall out, fail, and give up.

Biological parents are supplanted by statutory interventions, and yet what our authorities offer is all too often little better.

The child who is removed often suffers through that removal whether or not he or she was physically or sexually abused or neglected. We are becoming aware that soldiers returning from war zones often suffer disorientation when they return to a peaceful environment, even when coming home to their families.

It should not therefore surprise us that when we remove children whose personalities are still under formation, they have similar problems. Even if their homes have been inadequate, there is still a bereavement, and removals usually overlook a wise principle: “When making changes in children’s lives, make them one at a time.”

A removal often involves a change of school and locality, the loss of friends, and sometimes sibling separation. Often the ‘befriending’ social worker who changed your life is relocated to another case within months.

The younger child can usually be managed more easily, and many of these are placed with foster carers. But there is a nationwide lack of foster parents, partly because local authorities do not always treat them fairly or with sensitivity.

It is hard enough to recruit them for the very young, but inevitably when foster homes are sought for the most rebellious, truculent, and aggressive adolescent, that is a more difficult prospect. The more troubled children can pass through multiple carers with incremental losses compounding the problems with every move. Carers skilled in managing such children are in especially short supply and institutional care at massive public expense can become the only option.

Caring for just under 5000 children in private care homes is costing £1billion per year.

Often these children are placed far from home. Sometimes this is for good and understandable reason: children may need to be removed from abusive families, drug dealer networks, or gang cultures. Unsurprisingly, a combination of isolation and association with other children in difficulty within such homes provides a context in which the deceptively friendly paedophile makes his appearance.

Often, these children will have experienced not only removal from family and friends, but multiple failed foster placements and multiple social workers. They have become difficult to manage administrative problems. They may not cry out “I am not a number”, but that is how they will feel. Ill-equipped to make good choices for themselves, the older children frequently become self-contained, suspicious, and self-assertive. Why wouldn’t they?

What few outside this world of public childcare understand is that these institutions – which are providing some of the most expensive child care in the country (several times the cost of Eton) – can struggle to attempt to contain the children with any degree of parental authority.

If a child becomes so disruptive and uncontrollably at risk, one moves to yet another level of institution (and expense) within ‘Secure Accommodation’. Only here the doors are locked. Getting a child behind a locked door – the better to keep him or her safe – is not easy. It requires a court order and an expensive legal process which is regularly reviewed. Local authorities under financial pressure regard this as a last resort.

This raises the question of why all our institutional children’s homes not ‘secure’?

The shameful answer is ‘Children’s Rights’.

In the same way that the high-minded principles of data protection permitted the obstruction of the Secretary of State’s ability to identify the risky areas and plan accordingly, so the consequences of human rights activism has its unacknowledged dark and dirty side in the neglect and exploitation of the poor.

Nobody wants to own responsibility for this consequence of the human rights culture.

While the costs of residential care may be astronomically high, the residential social worker is a lowly-paid and much undervalued cog in the wheel. Having been given the responsibility to live with and manage difficult children, they have been given no power to impede the coming and going of young adolescents, and in the high profile cases of organised abuse, they have spoken of their anger and frustration as they watched young girls getting into taxis, knowing what was happening, and impotent to interfere. Some sense that managers of budgets have effectively given up trying to contain such youngsters.

We live in a rights culture. That should in no way be confused with a protective culture, a nurturing culture, or a responsible one.

It is not only the organised older men who exploit these troubled adolescents. They form sexual relationships with those of their own age which often lack affirming love. Often this begins under the statutory age of consent, but who cares about that anymore?

Brother Ivo does, for he has encountered one such young woman who described how her multiple sexual partners delivered no sense of exclusive intimacy or self esteem. It was only when a boyfriend became jealous and hit her that she felt any sense of being ‘special’.

Few will articulate the problem so clearly, but it may offer a clue as to why the average woman who suffers domestic abuse tolerates 27 assaults before concluding that something needs to be done to stop it.

Why is this problem seemingly growing?

Brother Ivo suggests that it started to go seriously wrong when the courts decided to reject Victoria Gillick’s attempts to protect her children from unlawful under-age sexual intercourse, with the result that parents are no longer alerted when their children seek to be prescribed contraception. The arrival of the non-judgmental school counsellor further reduced parental controls, as did the virtual abandonment of enforcing the age of consent.

The Gillick legal decision thought in terms of a minority of cases where a young person was responsible enough to make such a medical decision for herself, but, as with abortion, a free-for-all followed. Who now seriously bothers to challenge the wishes and feelings of any middle adolescent in these matters? The school? The social worker? Our culture?

Brother Ivo knows a primary school teacher who watched a nine-year-old storm out of school when the headmaster refused to allow her to come to the classroom dressed as jail-bait. On the way out she asserted her ‘human right’ to dress as she pleased.

There are two telling sentences in the summary of the Gillick story:

“The House of Lords focused on the issue of consent rather than a notion of ‘parental rights’ or parental powers.”

One Judge explained:

“..the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child’s evolving maturity; except in situations that are regulated otherwise by statute, the right to make a decision on any particular matter concerning the child shifts from the parent to the child when the child reaches sufficient maturity to be capable of making up his or her own mind on the matter requiring decision.”

We saw there the crippling of traditional parental authority which was replaced by the judgments of the State. What could possibly go wrong?

Doubtless mature, informed decision-making by intelligent, articulate young women all plays out very well in Primrose Hill, but we now see the consequences of such liberal reasoning in the inner city estates where multiple deprivations might have been survivable if strong families subsisted. With family breakdown and dissolved parental authority, we see the children of the poor betrayed. A stroppy youngster with human-rights rhetoric on his or her side is beyond the containment of many a struggling single parent.

Families used to be able to point to a societal ‘line in the sand’, confident that if they asserted a prohibition, society would support them. That age of consent, that right to know if a child was becoming sexually active, that right to enforce a curfew time, each was a useful weapon in the arsenal of the parent, helping them to discharge their responsibility to protect their child, sometimes from themselves, often within a dangerous environment.

Yet if biological parents no longer have knowledge or control over risks to their under-age children, why should we expect any different from the State when it acquires the role of ‘Parental Responsibility’?

Many of the youngsters who are being drugged and gang raped have little self esteem, which is why they are so vulnerable to the slightest show of affection and interest. Often this begins with absent parents, usually fathers, but throughout the culture from their earliest years there has been a “Do what you like” message, and the endowment of 14-year-olds with a false sense of maturity.

This sounds liberal and liberating, but when it has been the underlying theme throughout your childhood, it has a profoundly depressing outcome.

An infant finds the world a very scary place. From the outset it looks to its family for nurture and protection. Above all, it wants boundaries, for within the boundaries, love, safeguarding and a sense of worth can grow. If you are constantly extending your hand towards a boundary that gives way, you begin to realise that not only are you not able to keep yourself safe, nobody is taking that responsibility.

The young adolescent, egged on by media and peers, may act confident, but the insecurities remain: human rights and legal rights are no substitute for what has been lost.

This is especially the tragedy of the child of the underclass within state care; they are overwhelmingly the victims of those who sneered at Victoria Gillick.

Our society thinks the dispensing of money shows how much we care. We are spending huge sums at present for poor value to all concerned, and doubtless some will advocate for more. Paying money while witholding what these children really need is actually the intellectually cheap and uncaring alternative.

However much Brother Ivo may sound like a dinosaur to Nick Clegg, our current uncaring cold-as-charity abuse of our young people will look every bit as bad to future generations as the abuse of the Magdalene Laundries.

The double tragedy for these young people is that when they have reached adulthood and leave public care, their expensive ‘education’ will disproportionately lead them to populate the cohorts of the alcoholic, the prisoner, the unemployed, the drug addicted, the homeless and the mentally ill. They will also be more likely to suffer the heartache of their children being removed as the whole cycle repeats itself.

The disturbing picture at the top of the page graphically portrays what our publicly declared ‘compassionate liberal’ society actually delivers through its values and the expensive care system to the children of the poor.

If any commercial organisation consistently delivered damaged goods at such prices, we would prosecute them under Consumer Protection legislation.

Mr Gove has his work cut out.


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