Danny Kruger, who was David Cameron’s speechwriter, defends his most notorious piece of work for the Tory leader and says that love is a neglected crime-fighting device
It happened to be the day that Boris Johnson took office as Mayor of London with a mandate to tackle youth crime. My wife and I were coming out of a house in Camden where we had been viewing a flat to rent. Standing on the steps with us, the owner of the flat suddenly saw the retreating rear of his moped, two boys aboard and half a dozen of their friends pelting along behind.
Like the pair of prats we were, the owner and I tackled youth crime. When we caught up with the pedestrians, we received between us a black eye (owner) and cut lip (me), and no moped.
My main memory of this incident is rather horrid: the spit-filled mouth of the little rat-faced boy who punched me. Short, white, in a grey hooded tracksuit, he shouted at me with all the rage of Cain: the most astonishing indignation.
‘Man hands on misery to man’, said Larkin, ‘it deepens like a coastal shelf’. The metaphor is too gradual. In this generation there seems to have been a vertiginous drop, a sudden deepening out of sight. There is a cohort of youths in London (their existence was starkly revealed in the investigation into the murder of Damilola Taylor) who are both effectively unparented, and unknown to the authorities: kids not on child benefit lists or school rolls or the records of the social services. They are few, of course, but they stand as representatives of a generation of scowling young Londoners.
The day of Boris’s election was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.
This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.
Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.
Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.
This need to own the pain you feel, to make it yours, helps explain the deep guilt felt by victims of abuse or trauma. Taking responsibility for what you went through at least means you did something, rather than merely received the experience passively. The psychoanalyst Ronald Fairbairn called it ‘the moral defence’: it is, in a sense, understandable and rather admirable.
Except that a common consequence of the moral defence would appear to be violence towards others. Living with unjustified guilt is deeply painful. And we use pain to authorise evil.
De Zulueta’s analysis is to me a compelling reason why a purely punitive approach to crime and disorder cannot work. Of course we need punishment, both for its deterrent value (which is clearly effective in many cases) and for the sake of natural justice.
But for an increasing number of kids, issuing out of wrecked families into the streets of London, punishment is actually the fulfilment their pain is seeking. The perverted street culture which glamorises prison dovetails neatly with the yearning for agency; meanwhile the actual reality of prison is, if not glamorous, at least stable and comparatively safe.
Surely we can develop better institutions to warehouse hoodies than prison and the familiar big urban state school. The mid-20th-century model of teenage education — large mixed-ability classes sitting in ordered rows, passively receiving instruction — has little to offer those boys who attacked the moped man and me. They need a mix of creativity (artistic and intellectual) and adventure (preferably outdoor and physical) which exam-driven schooling simply can’t offer.
Somehow the long slow process needs to begin — of building up the institutions which host love. But it will take changes which go way beyond politics.
Society has turned itself around before. From the early 19th century, against all expectations, the tide of gin and concupiscence that swilled the sewers of Georgian London actually receded. It did this partly because of a new social commitment on the part of the rich, informed by evangelical Anglicanism and directed both at personal and political responsibility.
Today’s aristocracy — the elite who make the culture and the policy — have a similar duty. Most obviously, we need to change the way the people at the very bottom of society are paid: through the drug trade and the welfare state. Between them these things wreck the natural reward system which, without them, would incentivise responsibility through simple economics.
Middle-class students and professionals who buy drugs from young black men (I was one of them once, God forgive me), need to put their vaunted social conscience into practice and stop paying people to be criminals.
And politically we need to reform welfare to promote activity not passivity, fatherhood not just fathering, and local leadership not state provision of everything. Unconditional, unlimited welfare not only smothers ordinary responsibility. It hampers the extraordinary people who are trying to build the institutions of love — like my friend Marie Hanson, a single mother living on a Battersea estate who somehow manages to provide support for 40 other single mums and their children.
I’m sorry if all this sounds priggish. But liberal sophistication, justifying the deliberate disengagement of the elite from the moral and social welfare of everyone else, has partly got us into this mess; it won’t get us out of it.
Danny Kruger manages Only Connect, a creative arts company and resettlement charity for prisoners, ex-offenders and young people at risk of crime and exclusion. Any Which Way, David Watson’s new 30-minute play about knife crime, will be performed by ten ex-offenders at the Only Connect theatre in London WC1 on the evening of 27 June. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.