Denise Fergus, mother of murdered child James Bulger, seems to have extraordinary powers. Since the return to prison of Jon Venables, who was 10 years old when he killed Bulger in February 1993 and who is now 27, respectable commentators have blamed Fergus and her supporters for everything from generating ‘monstrous fears of young people’ to whipping up an ‘emotionalist… mob morality’ with its ‘unlovely combination of vigilantism and prurience’. Apparently, Fergus’s insistence that she has a right to know what Venables is accused of, and the support she’s won from the tabloids, is doing serious harm to British law, justice and morality.
This is responsibility-shifting of epic proportions. In effect the liberal intelligentsia is blaming Fergus and her so-called lynch mob for things that it is largely responsible for. It was not Fergus, a relatively powerless woman in Liverpool, who demonised youth and gave birth to a new era of emotionalism in politics. Those are key trends of New Labour’s New Britain, which from the outset has been built on suspicion of working-class communities (in particular their seemingly un-socialisable youth) and on the promotion of the politics of emotion and the politics of victimhood to fill the vacuum left by the death of the politics of conviction. Ashamed, and possibly even a little appalled, at the backward nation they helped to create, New Labourites and the intelligentsia now try to pin the blame for the whole thing on a handful of weeping Scousers.
For all the labelling of the lower orders as ‘ghouls who get their kicks by vicariously wallowing in this crime’, it is worth recalling the extent to which New Labour itself emerged through the opportunistic exploitation of the murder of James Bulger. It is not going too far to say that New Labour’s New Britain was built on Bulger’s grave. Too often, people understand New Labour as the conspiratorial creation of a handful of right-leaning Labourites, such as Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, or they see it as an overnight creation that followed the Labour Party’s decision in 1995 to ditch Clause IV of its constitution, which ostensibly committed it to the redistribution of wealth. In fact, the transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour, from a party with attachments to the working classes into an aloof political machine concerned primarily with social control, was a long, drawn-out process, which was given a boost by various random events in the late 1980s and the early to mid-1990s. And one of those events was the killing of James Bulger.
In 1993, when John Major’s Tories were in power, Labour was starting to repose itself, not as the party of the working man, but as the party of social order and ‘community empowerment’. The defeat and hollowing-out of traditional Labour, which came to a head in the series of electoral debacles in the 1980s, left it an empty shell, a party in search of a purpose. Between its defeat by Major’s Tories in 1992 and its eventual victory under Tony Blair’s leadership in 1997, Labour did not so much consciously reinvent itself or devise anything like a clear-cut political programme, as feel around for ideas, leap upon anything that seemed to create traction amongst the public, and intuitively redefine itself as the party that could stem the apparent social and moral decay and free-for-all individualism that had been unleashed by the Tories. And such a party, stuck in a kind of limbo between the Old and the New, welcomed high-profile events, scandals and tragedies as opportunities for defining and refining its outlook. The murder of James Bulger became a key formative event for New Labour.
For the changing Labour Party and its supporters in the media and the intelligentsia, the murder of Bulger became powerfully symbolic – of out-of-control communities, of the rise of individualism at the cost of community solidarity, and primarily of the dangers of ‘too much freedom’. It is striking that it was Tony Blair, who was then shadow home secretary but would later, of course, become the colossus of New Labour, who most keenly exploited the Bulger tragedy. For him, the killing was not a mercifully rare or inexplicable occurrence, but a ‘hammer blow struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see’.
What Blair and his supporters saw was a society that needed more ‘order’ and ‘respect’ – his two favourite buzzwords of the time. The killing of Bulger revealed a ‘moral vacuum’, said Blair in 1993, and ‘if we do not learn and then teach the value of what is right and what is wrong, the result is simply moral chaos, which engulfs us all’. Blair had already been presenting New-ish Labour as the true party of tackling crime (he made his famous promise to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ just a month before Bulger was murdered) and as one sympathetic biographer points out, the Bulger killing finally showed that Labour ‘had taken the issue of law and order away from the Conservatives and made it part of the Labour agenda’. As a result of his being made ‘Labour’s spokesman on the Bulger issue’, suddenly Blair was seen as ‘someone who could bring Labour back to power’, says his biographer (1). The old elite recognised the importance of the shift that was taking place: ‘Even Labour now wants people to talk about right and wrong’, said a Times editorial on 22 February 1993.
For Labour and its supporters, the ‘moral vacuum’ apparently revealed by the Bulger killing was brought about by a combination of factors. First, there was the alleged problem of ‘evil’. One commentator argued in November 1993, after Venables and Thompson were found guilty, that the murder was a ‘reminder of humanity’s most ancient and bestial instincts’, and Labourites, in particular Blair, adopted the language of ‘good and evil’ in their promise to ‘remake Britain’. Second, there was the claim that Britain had been ‘broken’ by the Tories. In 1993 Blair, more than 15 years before David Cameron, became the first serious politician to use the phrase ‘broken Britain’. Third there was the problem of ‘uncaring communities’. ‘What happened to the active citizen?’ asked the Guardian in November 1993, following revelations that Venables, Thompson and Bulger had walked past 38 people (the ‘Liverpool 38’ as one tabloid branded them) without being stopped. In response, Labour promised it would ‘restore community values and community solidarity’ (2).
And fourth, the murder apparently exposed the problem of ‘too much freedom’. A writer for the Daily Mail argued that the killing of Bulger was brought about by the denigration of family values and the promotion of too many ‘optional lifestyles’. ‘For years false freedoms have been foisted on the unsophisticated’, he said, ‘and James paid for them with his life’. This perverse idea that a horrific child murder was the consequence of too much liberty was embraced by Labour, which used the Bulger murder as a platform from which to launch its focus on ‘rights and responsibilities’ – that is, the need for people to behave as obedient, unquestioning citizens before they can expect to enjoy legal rights. As one important study argues: ‘The origins of New Labour’s conversion to the notions of responsibility, obligation and community [can be traced to] the murder of James Bulger… The murder, the arrest of the two boys and their subsequent trial all shaped the specific form of communitarianism – backward-looking, nostalgic, authoritarian and focused on social control – that now drives New Labour’s programme.’ (3)
The key consequence of the political exploitation of the Bulger murder was authoritarianism. Today, Denise Fergus is accused of stirring up ‘monstrous, unsubstantiated fears of young people’; in truth it was the political elite that used this exceptional killing as a means for increasing social control, particularly of the young. In December 1993, less than a month after Venables and Thompson were found guilty, then Tory home secretary Michael Howard introduced his Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill into the House of Commons, the aim of which was to ‘make it easier to catch, convict and punish criminals’ and to allow for ‘harsher sentences for young offenders’ (4). Labour went one better, proposing in response to the Bulger murder the abolition of doli incapax, the presumption in British law that children under the age of 14 are ‘incapable of crime’. It finally abolished it in 1998. This, more than anything Denise Fergus has ever done, sent the powerful message that young people are capable of terrifying acts and opened the floodgates to a decade of media and political demonisation of ‘feral youth’.
Not content with intuitively creating a political programme on the back of the Bulger murder – one which vastly exaggerated the collapse of morality and decency in working-class communities and emphasised the need for tougher measures of social control – Labour even allowed Bulger to become bound up in its internal leadership squabbles. According to one Labour historian, supporters of Blair argued that Blair’s ‘performance’ on the Bulger question made it clear that he would be a better successor to John Smith (who was then still alive but died a year after the Bulger murder) than would Gordon Brown. Blair was praised for ‘giving voice to public anxieties’ and at the end of February 1993, the month of his Bulger pronouncements, one newspaper declared: ‘The succession is decided. The heir is chosen. Step forward Tony Blair. Give way Gordon Brown.’ (5)
The other thing Denise Fergus is accused of is using her status as ‘perennial victim of a pair of notorious murderers’ as a ‘route to moral superiority’, and ‘once we let our emotions rather than the law rule, we are lost’, says one broadsheet columnist. Yet this, too, this elevation of the victim as a figure of ‘moral superiority’ in both the political and legal sphere, is the work of the New Labour elite rather than a handful of people from Liverpool. Alongside its authoritarian communitarianism, panic about moral vacuums, and demonistation of ‘out-of-control’ youth, another central plank of New Labour’s New Britain has been politicians’ exploitation of the victims of crime as a way of driving political and social change. From its embrace of the families of the Dunblane massacre in 1996 to push the case for tighter gun controls, to its promotion of Frances Lawrence (wife of murdered headteacher Philip Lawrence) to the forefront of its drive against knife crime, to its appointment of Sara Payne (mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah) as its first Victims Champion, New Labour has time and again elevated the impacable fury of victims over democratic debate in its authoritarian solutions to society’s ‘moral vacuum’. This has indeed denigrated politics and law, but that is our leaders’ doing, not Denise Fergus’s.
The recent liberal media discussion of Denise Fergus has been alarmingly intemperate and snobbish. Commentators who are normally guarded about how they discuss the working classes have used the words ‘mob’, ‘lynch mob’ and ‘reactionary mob’ to describe Fergus and her coterie and have effectively held them singlehandedly responsible for turning Britain into a fearful, suspicious, authoritarian nation given to outbursts of hysterical fear about young people. Why has the liberal elite been so harsh towards Fergus? Possibly because it cannot bear to face up to the truth of who is really responsible for creating this backward New Britain: Them, not Us.
Brendan O’Neill explained that it wasn’t ‘the mob’ that turned the Bulger case into a symbol of moral decay, but a decadent political class and the media.
Jennie Bristow wrote about the neverending Bulger case in 2001. In light of Jade Goody’s terminal cancer diagnosis,
Brendan O’Neill looked at the myth of public hysteria.
Tim Black noted that revealing the identities of Baby P’s killers provided an opportunity for ‘underclass’ baiting.
(1) Tony Blair, Thomas M Collins, A&E Publishers, 2005
(2) Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation, Bob Franklin (ed.), Routledge, 1999
(3) Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation, Bob Franklin (ed.), Routledge, 1999
(4) Social Policy, the Media and Misrepresentation, Bob Franklin (ed.), Routledge, 1999
(5) Quoted in Faces of Labour: The Inside Story, Andy McSmith, Verso, 1996