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April 24, 2006

In (Partial) Defence of Yobs: We are facing an epidemic of yobbophobia, not yobbery - argues ex-yob (and university academic) Lincoln Allison

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - recently retired as Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - offers a (partial) defence of yobs and yobbery.

Everybody is talking about yobs these days. There are books on the subject by such as Frank Field, surely one of the more interesting MPs, and by the writer known as Theodore Dalrymple who, apart from writing well, has the rather impressive credentials of having worked as a doctor in the inner cities and in prisons. The last time I was on the committee of our local amenity society in Leamington Spa, a couple of years ago, the other, generally elderly, members were obsessed with yobs and would surely have closed every bar in town if they could. (My sons, on the other hand, were all rather proud of Leamington as the liveliest place in the Midlands where a very good time might be had.) "Yob" has become such a key concept in contemporary Britain that, like "racism" it is subject to the process which C. L. Stevenson called "persuasive definition". For example, the Socialist Worker calls Tony Blair a yob because of his supposed vandalism of public services: it is nice when people stick to the script as one would have written it for them, isn't it?

For several reasons I can’t accept the picture of a society degenerating into yobbism which is painted by so many people. The most obvious is that it doesn't tally with my experience. I still teach in two universities and I find the students polite, punctual and sociable, much less yobbish than their parents who were divided into the rudely aggressive and the moronically withdrawn. I also attend football matches at many levels, mainly in "The Championship" (which was the old Division 2 before grade inflation). Behaviour is now exemplary and includes rigorous observance of the increasingly frequent one-minute silences; back in the 1970s and 1980s these were invariably punctuated by choruses of

You're gonna get your f***ing heads kicked in.
It is statistically true now that a football ground is the safest place to be in our society, despite a few remnants of hooliganism in the backwoods, especially in Wales. And, indeed, the most threatening thing that has happened to me recently in visiting my home ground is having to listen to the bloke behind me going on and on about how good the snow was in the Val d'Isere the week before. That and his son's golf handicap – down to 4, apparently, which I'd probably boast about if I had the opportunity.

Talking of football, it is true that boys playing the game did a lot of damage to the long but rather flimsy fence along one side of our family home in Lancashire. But it's also true that they – or their parents – replaced it at their own expense without being asked. And having owned the same house in Leamington for thirty years I can report – at the risk of tempting Providence - that the three things which used to be the banes of town centre living, car vandalism, graffiti and dogshit, are currently at an all-time low.

In other words, I retain some sympathy for the Martyn Lewis view that we are programmed to create and receive bad news and our interpretations of everyday events are made in terms of that bad news. Old ladies in Leamington Spa tend to think that every group of rowdy youths they hear in the distance is bent on kicking somebody's head in because they've read about such things in the papers. Whereas the truth is that very few are – just as very few of the people who chanted about kicking heads in at football grounds ever even wanted to do it. Yobbery is a real phenomenon, but it is dwarfed in scale by yobbophobia.

This is not to deny that some very nasty behaviour occurs including muggings, arson and appalling violence. Nor to deny that there are places where this behaviour makes life pretty well intolerable. But it is to insist that "society" is a pretty complex concept and that societies can go in opposite directions at the same time. Yobbery may be on the increase, but there is also something going on akin to The Rise of Respectable Society, to borrow the title of Francis Thompson's social history of England between 1830 and 1900 (which doesn't say anything much different from other books on the period, but I like the title). We were much closer, surely, to the real truth in the 1980s when we were talking of the existence of a hopeless underclass valued as worthless by its members as by the market; these are people who lack any of the kinds of resources, whether skills or family networks, to do anything about their predicament. If I was a member of this class and they tried to make me go to some dreadful "comprehensive" school which would (rightly) seem a waste of time to me then I think I would try to burn it down. And stone the fire brigade when they tried to put the fire out.

It is at this point that I ought to confess that I am a bit of a yob. Or, at least, an ex-yob. I have spilled blood in fights (twice), vomited in the streets, run across the top of a line of parked cars, broken a window just for fun, streaked and woken up with somebody whose name I didn't know (though not all on the same day). There was nothing terribly exceptional about my career as a yob: most of it was rugby-related and I was never caught let alone punished. And I had no excuses because I was from a secure and prosperous background. I can't say I regret any of this; indeed not only would I rather have done these things than not, but, all things being equal, I'd rather spend time with people who'd done them than with those who hadn't. I have an instinctive fear of the latter category, rather suspecting that its members would be more at home under the Major-generals of the Cromwellian Republic than they would in post-Restoration England.

I accept that in some sense it was "wrong" to do any of these things, but not very wrong because the victims were either dispersed or volunteers. What I don't accept is that this behaviour was "deviant" if by that is meant that it was "unnatural" and in need of social explanation; when faced with anything which looks remotely, irritatingly like a social order all of these actions are entirely natural. One problem of the understanding of all this is that most of the people who write about it are unnaturally nice. The worst mistake they make is to think that some normal condition – call it "original sin" or "lack of respect" – is evil or en route to evil. It is the illiberal error of the late Lord Devlin's The Enforcement of Morals which thinks that morality is a system which must be accepted (and enforced) instead of a set of social reflexes. Thus the girl who vomits down herself or ends up in a one night stand is on the road to a transcendent moral decay. Not true, in my experience.

Two ways of thinking about crime and morality can be here represented by two mythical headmasters: let us call them the Just Brute and the Social Worker. The JB understands that a boy cannot be expected to look at a piece of glass without wanting to hear the merry tinkling which it would make on being shattered – or see the rubber stopper on the bottom of a chair without wanting to remove it and hurl it at a teacher. But, in the general interest, order and glass must be maintained. So he beats hard and forgets. The SW wants boys to eradicate the "anti-social" from their souls and to "internalise" his norms. He "understands", he lectures, he cajoles, he manipulates. He is the product of a form of thinking which flowered in the nineteenth century and his ultimate project is for a society of people whose characteristics are moulded by the state. We will be made to conform to varieties of the morality which follows from humanist self-worship.

Thus moralising about the "yob society" is pointless as well as nauseating. If you own nothing, are from a broken home, have no outlet for your sexual desires etc. then naturally, you will be a yob. The question is what are the non-yobs going to do about it? Taking a broad historical and geographical perspective on the problem, the route to "respectable society" involved a good deal of hanging and flogging. Which practices are now considered "distasteful" and "uncivilised". Fair enough, if that's what you want, but shut up and accept the consequences.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick.

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I thoroughly agree with almost all of this.
The shame of it is that people love to have their fears reinforced, and the news media is all too happy to oblige.

I wrote more about this than is appropriate for a comment here.

Posted by: John Hartnup at April 25, 2006 11:28 AM

The fact that the author seems unable to distinguish between “original sin” and “lack of respect”, and equates the girl who ‘vomits down herself’ with she who ‘ends up in a one night stand’ is evidence enough that we – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are all well along the road to a transcendent moral decay.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at April 29, 2006 08:20 PM

This is an odd article and a frustrating one. I would have expected the football terraces to be excluded as an example of how we are more civilised these days. Football grounds are safer now due to much better organised policing, harsher punishments for offenders, CCTV, all-seated grounds and more expensive tickets etc. Nowhere in that list do we see any reference to an improved human character. As far as the student experience is concerned this is apt to be misleading. Students, mindful of their future careers tend to behave differently to the underclass, who rarely think even ten minutes ahead. I have a suspicion that Mr Allison does not spend much time in the darker neighbourhoods as I have done. Mixing with excitable types who have practiced Bakunin's maxim is not the same as living on a sink estate for years. For over a decade now I have been at close quarters with the rotting end of society and the picture is not pretty. Let us remember that the underclass is not shrinking. Where there is an underclass yobbery and violence are endemic. I have witnessed it all bar murder, and literally have the scars to prove it. Dalrymple in particular, and the Murrays (Charles and Douglas) are much more subtle than this. They, and I are not saying that yobbery was patented in 1992. Far from it. Humans have behaved badly, stupidly and deliberately recklessly since pebbles were first discovered. We know this already. What we are saying is that the range and depth of the anti-social has increased. For once the papers are actually mirroring reality. The old ladies referred to have good reason to be fearful where I live. If you are decent, well-mannered and don't ceaselessly spit and swear you are in a freakish minority. Come to my part part of the world Lincoln (which could be any town in the Midlands, they're all pretty much the same) and if you do not admit to the general cultural degradation and squalor then I truly despair.

Posted by: Richard Nalty at August 28, 2009 07:10 PM
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