When I first qualified as a lawyer, I briefly practised criminal law. I liked the theatricality of appearing in court, but I hated the time spent with the clients. Why? Because they talked of their crimes as if they were diseases for which they were not responsible. One said to me once "I was doing so well Mr. Paine, and then this happened. "This" was that he had been caught on the roof of a local electrical store, breaking in to steal the TVs. All my clients used the passive voice to signal that they were not responsible for their actions.
This book explores, among other things, why the "underclass" in Britain think, or at least talk, this way. Ideas of social determinism have filtered down from the dinner tables of the chattering classes to the streets. There they serve as a series of convenient excuses for bad behaviour. The author (a clinical psychologist working in hospitals and prisons) writes that when a patient excuses his criminal actions by claiming to be "easily led" he asks "...if he was ever easily led to study mathematics or the subjunctives of French verbs...". Exactly.
The increasing incidence of asocial behaviour in Britain is not caused by poverty. We are the 4th richest country in the world, with a much narrower range of economic inequality than most. It is caused by ideas, principally the idea that there are "social" explanations for an individual's choice to take drugs, commit crimes, or neglect his children.
And the more we look to such "social" explanations (as in New Labour's slogan - "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"), the more the criminals and other leeches excuse their actions using these theories. The cause of crime is criminals, Mr. Blair.
It degrades a man more to excuse his criminality than to hold him responsible. The army of social workers, probation officers etc. are signalling the belief of our rulers that we are not fully human; that we can no more choose to be honest, than a goat can choose to use a knife and fork. To blame crime on poverty is to insult the honest poor - the majority of the people on this planet.
Unfortunately this ludicrous fiction serves both sides. This book shows that criminals know exactly how to minimise their sentences using pop psychology. The people employed to listen to criminals' excuses know which side their bread is buttered. The politicians love these theories. They need more power to control the social circumstances of us all than they need to punish the criminal minority on our behalf. And so the State grows and our freedoms diminish as (in theory) we are all manipulated into behaviours and thought patterns consistent with abolishing the "causes of crime".
It is a shame the author's prose style is so pompous, because the ideas in this book are crucially important. Don't be put off by his style, it's a riveting read.
Amazon.co.uk: Books: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass