Great Tradition

D.G. Wright

  • Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears by Geoffrey Pearson
    Macmillan, 243 pp, £15.00, July 1983, ISBN 0 333 23399 9

In the present embattled climate, with Thatcherite artillery trained on the crumbling ramparts of higher education, academics need to keep their powder dry and prepare for a prolonged siege. Although monetarist economists and cost accountants may feel reasonably safe, Norman Tebbit has recorded his dim view of effete scholars who study tribal customs on the Upper Volta, while Sir Keith Joseph’s hostility towards the social sciences has involved the once-mighty Social Science Research Council in acronymic self-torture. If the present Government’s narrow range of useful and acceptable disciplines means that anthropology and sociology seem destined for slow strangulation, then history, according to current rumours, is to be given a frontal lobotomy. Our present political masters apparently resent the work of professional historians in undermining the Anglocentric tradition on which British self-confidence was bashed for centuries. Basking in the afterglow of a landslide victory and fully aware of the potency of the Falklands factor, Tory politicians like Lord Hugh Thomas, the distinguished historian of Spain and Cuba, see the task of historians as the creation of a usable past which will confirm the version of history peddled in the popular press, furnish yet another justification of their claim to authority and boost the sagging morale of an embittered populace. We therefore face attempts by the New Right to revive the old patriotic Imperialist tradition, with students and school-children subjected to appropriately uplifting selections from British history, perhaps including our boys shinning up the Heights of Abraham, marching boldly from Kabul to Kandahar and yomping across Goose Green. Efforts will no doubt be made to convince bored and alienated youth that Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet stands in direct line from liberty-loving Saxon monarchs, bold Elizabethan privateers, sober Puritan possessive individualists, earnest penny-pinching Victorian shopkeepers and those resolute chaps who, ignoring the fainthearts, went with the flag to Pretoria and defeated the General Strike.

Those who deplore such vulgar ambitions and who value the critical scepticism of academic history will welcome Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan. Himself one of Rhodes Boyson’s despised breed of ‘mindles’s sociologists’, Pearson probes to the heart of the historical mythology beloved of the tabloids, the Tory New Right and over-mighty chief constables. It is widely believed that the traditionally peaceful and orderly British way of life, founded on an unquestioning respect for law and an abhorrence of violence, has recently been eroded by the permissive revolution, by a fatal loosening of authority and discipline in both families and schools, by interfering namby-pamby do-gooders and by too many black immigrants. The Brixton and Toxteth riots of the summer of 1981 are held to justify the prominence of the law-and-order issue in Mrs Thatcher’s victorious election campaign two years earlier. As the Daily Express (6 July 1981) declared: ‘People are bound to ask what is happening to our country ... Having been one of the most law-abiding countries in the world – a byword for stability, order and decency – are we changing into something else?’ No less a personage than the Duke of Edinburgh has referred to ‘an avalanche of lawlessness threatening to engulf our civilisation’.

Mr Pearson will have none of this. In Hooligan he draws upon a wide range of historical evidence and recent research in order to expose nostalgic regret for a past golden age of tolerance and stability as nothing more than a comforting myth based on ignorance and prejudice. He demonstrates what academic social historians have realised for some time: that violence on the streets has characterised all periods of British history, from the unruly apprentices of pre-industrial Merrie England to the ‘muggers’ of our contemporary inner cities. Nor is there anything new in the fears of the ‘respectable’ (i.e. propertied) classes concerning rapid moral decline, given that successive generations have expressed virtually identical anxieties about moral degeneration and social breakdown.

Those who hark back to a golden age are invariably vague about chronology. Mr Pearson writes history backwards to demonstrate that eras of tranquillity immediately recede into a more distant past upon close examination. He reminds us how, during the never-had-it-so-good 1950s, there was considerable concern about permissiveness, hooliganism and Teddy Boys. At the Conservative Party Conference of 1958 the ‘soft’ R.A. Butler was assailed by the ‘hang ’em flog ’em’ lobby in much the same way as was William Whitelaw twenty years afterwards. In the Fifties there were many who joined Tory outriders like the British Medical Association in complaining about lack of parental control, the leniency of the law and an over-abundance of sex and violence. Teenagers were allegedly encouraged by affluence and Americanised ‘admass’ culture to reject traditional authority. Considerable hysteria was provoked by the ‘Teds’, who emerged from the distinctly non-affluent districts of working-class London. Few were willing to concede that Teddy Boys were direct descendants of the cosh boys and Blitzkids of the Forties, and that their territorial rivalries were a continuation, not only of earlier forms of gang ritual in urban working-class neighbourhoods, but also of the violent territorial conflicts of pre-industrial village society. Pearson also challenges the belief that the two world wars created stability and cohesion on the home front. The Great War was accompanied by a sharp rise in juvenile crime and a consequent upsurge in birching. The Second World War involved a further increase in street crime, and epidemics of looting after airraids. During 1941 over four thousand looting cases came before the London courts, involving children and youths and a remarkable number of people in positions of public trust: ARP wardens, rescue workers, auxiliary firemen, reserve policemen, bomb-disposal units and mortuary attendants.

Nor were the inter-war years untroubled and relatively law-abiding. There were complaints about escalating crime and violence, as well as much hostility to working-class culture and amusements – voiced, for example, by George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and the Scrutiny group gathered round F.R. Leavis. Alarm concerning the pernicious influence of Hollywood on working-class youth was matched by fear of football rowdyism both on and off the pitch. In 1936 the Football Association issued a stern memorandum on rough play and ‘the cold-blooded and intentional foul’. The fact that rival North London supporters of Spurs and Arsenal wielded knives and iron bars in the Twenties helps to put ‘traditional British sportsmanship’ into perspective. There was much serious crime in the Thirties, involving razor gangs, racecourse thugs, bag-snatchers, vice-racketeers and bloody feuds between armed gangsters, as well as the more mundane street-gambling, drunkenness, obscene language, vandalism and youth-club riots. The scale of political confrontation in this period is well-known: major clashes between police and hunger marchers and between fascists and anti-fascists, baton charges against the unemployed in over thirty towns in 1931, a year which saw the most disorderly election of the 20th century. However, despite the perennial alarmists, there was between the wars a remarkable tolerance of crime, if not of rebellion. The law was rarely imposed with full rigour at a time when the burgling of shops and kiosks was seen as relatively trivial and when bashing a policeman’s head against a brick wall could invoke a mere ten-shilling fine. Public hysteria about law and order was held in check, permitting the more enlightened reformist policies which culminated in the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act. As Pearson points out, the proportion of young offenders receiving custodial sentences is much higher in the Eighties than it was in the Thirties. Indeed, the whole system of criminal justice is now more rigorous. Hence the view of the inter-war decades as a period of firm punishment and relatively little crime cannot be sustained.

After the Great War, the Late Victorian years were depicted, as they sometimes still are, as a time of unrivalled tranquillity. It is true that crime levels were relatively low and public order more stable, despite considerable labour unrest, than in earlier or later times. Nevertheless, the respectable middle-class Right was once again vocal in its condemnation of youthful indiscipline and unemployed ‘loafers’, as well as expressing hostility towards music halls, professional football, ‘penny dreadful’ comics, rowdy working-class Bank Holiday excursions and even the cycling which made the lower orders more threateningly ubiquitous. Football rowdyism, involving attacks on referees and punch-ups between rival fans, was already making the headlines. In 1888 a newspaper reported that in a recent game ‘a continuous hail of empty bottles’ showered the pitch. Middle-class respectable fears were directed at working-class amusements when it was felt that the working classes were beginning to encroach upon hitherto reserved areas of middle-class dominance.

Pearson takes the title for his book from the ‘hooligan’ scare of the 1890s, when the press drummed up alarmist fears of the gangs of youths in London and other cities who smashed up pubs and ice-cream or coffee stalls, and who dressed in distinctive mufflers, irontipped boots and flared trousers with thick-studded belts. Hysterical newspaper editorials, invariably advocating floggings, highlighted the spitting, swearing, vandalism, physical assaults on passers-by and the general hostility of the denizens of the slums towards the police, 25 per cent of whom were assaulted in London in the 1890s. ‘Respectable fear’ led to movements to take boys from the undisciplined slums into the fresh air and knock them into shape by PT, drill and the necessity of playing the game.

In the earlier Victorian decades, too, there were panics about working-class crime and rowdyism, a consequence of a ‘new’ disrespect for traditional authority. The garotting scares of the 1850s and 1860s led to much press and right-wing hostility towards reform of the criminal justice system at a time when reliance on hanging, whipping and transportation was being replaced by emphasis on reformation of the criminal through the discipline of the penitentiary and the introduction of the ticket-of-leave parole system. Pearson points out that, contrary to myth, the reintroduction of flogging for garotters did not quell offences of robbery with violence: the crime wave came after the initial panic.

During the 1840s, concern about crime, disorder and a burgeoning industrial working class who seemed beyond the traditional institutions of social control, created deep social fear in a country which was then largely unpoliced. The Chartist challenge to the political system led to frequent pontificating about the breakdown of traditional discipline and family life which almost exactly mirrors that of 20th-century alarmists and which prompted a large-scale philanthropic movement for ‘moral reform’, designed to wean the working classes from drink, fornication and political rebellion and set them on the road to mental and moral improvement. In fact, complaints about increased crime and disorder and the breakdown of customary discipline go back through the 18th and 17th centuries and beyond, involving concern about unruly apprentices, gangs of upper-class thugs like the Mohacks, food-rioters, arsonists, rick-burners, poachers, smugglers, wreckers and machine-breakers. Pearson draws on the research of social historians of Early Modern Europe which shows that the feasts, wakes, revels, carnivals, church-ales and the like led to semi-licensed role-reversal and ritualised social protest, as in the ‘lords of misrule’, which could all too easily spill over into general mayhem, including gang rape and loss of life.

Mr Pearson writes pungently, if infelicitously, using ‘moderacy’ when he means ‘moderation’. He also makes some errors. The Bristol riots of 1831 led to 12 deaths, not 500, and the dragoons were carefully restrained by their commander: they did not indulge in ‘savage reprisals’. It is not true that the London police were armed for the first time in 1883: both they and most provincial forces were supplied with arms, if only temporarily, at the time of the Fenian outrages in the 1860s. Nor was the 1840s a decade of ‘unparalleled disorder’: that was the 1830s, when there existed a genuine possibility of popular armed revolution. Chartists can only be seen as religious men with considerable qualification, while Pearson errs in claiming that there was no youthful hooligan element in the 1842 general strike. Too little is said in Hooligan about the evolution of policing and the concept of social control in the maintenance of law and order. Mr Pearson could have pointed to many more examples of 19th-century disorder than those he provides, including election riots, industrial conflicts, anti-vaccination demonstrations and religious riots. The 1868 anti-Catholic riot in Ashton resulted in an Irishman killed and two chapels, one hall, one school and 110 houses in ‘Little Ireland’ destroyed, which makes Brixton and Toxteth seem small beer. Pearson argues that the law has never had the respect and consent of the poorest and most dispossessed classes, but David Philips, in his study of crime in the Black Country, asserts not only that there was surprisingly little violence and disorder, but that the vast majority of the population accepted the legitimacy of the criminal law and was relatively peaceful, orderly and law-abiding, in spite of widespread dislike of the police. In his anxiety to emphasise that street violence and disorder have, like the poor, always been with us, Pearson presents rather too static a picture and takes insufficient account of significant changes during the second half of the 19th century. David Jones has charted the taming of the notorious ‘Chinatown’ district of Merthyr and claims that criminal behaviour declined in Late Victorian London, just as Manchester was less brutal and more civilised in 1900 than fifty years earlier. This is reinforced by Gatrell’s argument that the coercive state was effective in bridling the law-breakers of Victorian England, in that trials for all indictable offences declined by as much as a third between the late 1850s and 1914. Again, shifts in penal policy during the 1860s had more complex origins than the relatively small-scale garotting panics on which Pearson focuses.

Nevertheless, Pearson is right to conclude from his selective historical survey that the remarkably consistent ‘respectable fears’ of the last two hundred years concerning crime and disorder, often attributed to unwelcome foreign and alien influences, bore little relationship to the actual facts of criminality. Such fears owed more to the universal human characteristic of nostalgia, to class and generational conflict, and to inability to cope with social change and with the increasing and ‘excessive’ liberty of the common people. Street crime and hooliganism are largely the province of young unmarried men, and Pearson approaches a sociobiological determinist position when he stresses the inherent aggressiveness of young males throughout history. He recognises that study of crime and disorder in the past, and of responses to it, runs the danger of lapsing into impotent fatalism and into a belief in something akin to ineradicable original sin. Yet he persuasively argues that it is a valuable and salutary lesson to realise that there are no quick and easy solutions, on ‘short sharp shock’ lines, to the problem. Street crime and hooliganism are not a recent product of liberal educational philosophies, television violence or soft pornography. The most one can expect is modification rather than elimination. Here the social-work approach which Pearson advocates seems likely to pay better dividends than the reactionary nostrums of the Tory Right. Certainly there are many who will endorse the argument that to rid street crime and hooliganism of the misleading myths by which they have been so long surrounded will enable us to attempt to deal with them in the future more calmly and sensibly.