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Populist ventriloquism

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Mark Easton | 16:11 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Heading through Helsinki slush to interview Finnish teenage delinquents (of whom more in a week or two) has got me thinking about "populist ventriloquism".

Ray Alan & Lord CharlesNo, I am not talking Ray Alan and Lord Charles here. Rather, it's a criminological theory that is, I read, currently influential.

The argument is that economic globalisation has substantially eroded a state's capacity to govern directly and so "intervention in the lives of socially deviant children" emerges as a "mechanism whereby the state attempts to establish or sustain its political authority".

To put it another way, politicians demonise children in order to disguise their own weaknesses. The analysis is laid out in a study entitled "Incarcerating Young People: An Anglo-Finnish Comparison".

While the UK locks up thousands of young offenders, today there are just six juveniles behind bars in Finland.

And the explanation, it is suggested, is that the British government is caught up in a "culture of control".

"In this situation," the argument runs, "the state endeavours to maintain its political authority by directing the anxieties generated by accelerating social, economic and cultural change... towards certain categories of demonised 'other'".

This diversionary tactic is, as you might have guessed, described as "popular ventriloquism".

It is a cynical view of the motivation of our elected representatives, it seems to me, and I am not persuaded that the pursuit of power always trumps a belief in social justice.

The theory rests on the view that anxieties have replaced ideals as the driver of electoral success. "In a situation where the voters who make a difference are disproportionately middle-aged, white and relatively prosperous, it comes as no surprise," the argument goes, "that the targets of governmental demonisation... are disproportionately non-white, non-prosperous and young".

While the British government is giving our youth a hard time, the report suggests, the Finns are pursuing progressive penal policies.

"Far from galvanising the press to demonise 'folk devils' as a means of generating social solidarity, government and the media co-operate to deflect attention from youth crime in order to protect children from stigma."

Yesterday I met the crime reporter from Finland's biggest tabloid who confirmed the point. When I told him that British red tops routinely describe youngsters as "thugs" or "yobs", he looked aghast.

"We wouldn't do that," he said, shaking a disbelieving head. "It is unethical."

Finland is not Britain. Its society and institutions are less adversarial, it has a system of proportional representation and political parties do not attempt to outbid each other on getting tough.

The consequence is an approach to criminal justice based on "welfarist strategies" rather than on punishment.

I doubt that British policies on delinquency are simply a cynical attempt to convince voters that national government has real power. But, viewed from the Helsinki slush, it is clear that our treatment of children comes from another planet.


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