Clegg in James Bulger apology row

by Stephen Tall on December 17, 2008

Today’s Daily Mail has the story:

The mother of murdered toddler James Bulger is demanding an apology from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg over comments that he made about her son’s murder. Denise Fergus has condemned Mr Clegg over the speech in which he claimed the murder of her son had led to a destructive ‘upswing in the number of children in prison.’

In his speech to the think-tank Demos, Mr Clegg said: ‘We know it was the disaster politics response to the killing of Jamie Bulger that led to a massive upswing in the number of children in prison, or prison-like secure accommodation. And we know it isn’t doing any good, it isn’t cutting crime, it’s just turning fragile children into damaged adults. Turning out a generation of career criminals. We need to protect against the worst, but we should not assume it. Crime must not end hope.’

Mr Clegg went to argue that that a ‘get tough’ reaction to James’ murder by successive Conservative and Labour governments had led to children being imprisoned when they should not have been.

The Mail’s report is a follow-up to a story which appeared in yesterday’s Liverpool Echo and Daily Post, and appears to have been sparked by the faux outrage of rent-a-quote Labour MP George Howarth: “By using the James Bulger case as an example Nick Clegg has shown a gross insensitivity and a deep ignorance of what took place and what prompted the reaction.”

All of which strikes me as a sad example of petty tribal politics, used as a smokescreen to divert attention from a serious issue. What Nick Clegg said in no way demands an apology, and I hope he and his office will stick firmly by the stance he struck.

Anyone with a soul will feel the deepest sympathy for Denise Fergus in her grief. But that should not prevent the leader of the Liberal Democrats from stating what is clearly true: that the national revulsion at James’s brutal death prompted Tory and Labour politicians to adopt a ‘something must be done’ attitude towards youth crime; an attitude which has entirely failed to solve the problem, and has in fact deepened it.

Now it’s open to any politician to disagree with Nick, to argue that the subsequent measures taken were entirely justified. But to pretend, as George Howarth does, that there is no link is as fatuous as it is cynical. Indeed, as the Liverpool Echo itself notes:

Mr Blair, then the shadow home secretary, rose to national prominence by calling the murder “a hammer blow against the sleeping conscience of the nation”. Coining the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, the future PM signalled Labour would never again be seen as the party soft on criminals.

The Conservatives responded and both parties toughened their stances, leading to a huge rise in the prison population – including the number of teenagers locked up.

And as the Prison Reform Trust notes, “Nick Clegg is absolutely right to imply that bad cases create bad law.”

Nick was entirely right to speak out, right to note the link. The kind of thoughtful honesty he invoked in his speech is something we need more of in politicians. The kind of brainless attempt to shut down debate indulged in by MPs like George Howarth (typically) and Peter Kilfoyle (uncharacteristically) is something we need a lot less of.

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The Daily Mail doesn’t bother waiting for a real story to appear – they make a living out of turning a minor incident into a national crisis.

(see Ross/Brand saga for further details)

by Letters From A Tory on December 17, 2008 at 10:01 am. Reply #


by Jennie on December 17, 2008 at 10:33 am. Reply #

What does that mean?

by John on December 17, 2008 at 10:41 am. Reply #


by Stephen Tall on December 17, 2008 at 10:42 am. Reply #

(in my case, both meanings of the acronym apply ;))

by Jennie on December 17, 2008 at 10:44 am. Reply #

Using these abbreviations saves such a lot of effort, doesn’t it?

by Clegg's Candid Fan on December 17, 2008 at 11:01 am. Reply #

The only thing that baffles me is why Nick felt the need, at the current time to opine that there are too many children in prison. Surely his speech-writers do not seriously believe that one of the most pressing problems facing the party today is one of not appearing sympathetic enough to the plight of criminals, teeny-weeny ones or otherwise?

Whether or not our underlying policies remain focused on effective solutions rather than ones that sound tough but don’t work, the imperative of public communications on the matter remains that you must first make clear you don’t like criminals before proposing your solutions to crime. Coming across as pro-criminal simply sabotages any chance of people taking the important parts of the message seriously.

Come in Agent Fox your party needs you now…

by Neil Berry on December 17, 2008 at 11:26 am. Reply #

Sympathetic to wrongly imprisoned children =/= pro-criminal, and he;s slotting into the “maybe we demonise our children too much” zeitgeist…

by Jennie on December 17, 2008 at 11:35 am. Reply #

He might not think it sound pro-criminal, he might not even think what he said was any sort of comment at all on the murderers of Jamie Bulger, but he doesn’t write the headlines.

And what zeitgeist? If you want to make that point, maybe as a dog whistle to people who already vote liberal, talk about real cases of real children that have been unfairly demonised, not the murderers of Jamie Bulger.

by Neil Berry on December 17, 2008 at 12:03 pm. Reply #

“If you want to make that point, maybe as a dog whistle to people who already vote liberal, talk about real cases of real children that have been unfairly demonised, not the murderers of Jamie Bulger.”

But to be fair, Clegg didn’t say anything at all about the murderers of James Bulger – that’s just the way Denise Fergus has misunderstood it, presumably because that’s how the Mail reporter misrepresented it to her.

It seems to be that she is the one who is being used as a _journalistic_ football here. Pretty much gutter stuff.

by Clegg's Candid Fan on December 17, 2008 at 12:18 pm. Reply #

Nick Clegg has done the right thing, and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to apologise for. He was right. Yes, the state does imprison far too many young people. And no, prison doesn’t work.

No, Neil Berry, it is Liberal Democrats, not Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, who formulate Lib Dem policy. If you are right, and political parties are obligated to defer to the gutter press, then few social reforms would ever be possible. We would still be hanging people for shoplifting.

Nick did make one tiny error. The child’s name was “James”, not “Jamie”. The latter was concocted by journalists who wanted him so sound more “cutesy”.

Denise Fergus didn’t think of this herself. Indeed, I doubt if she knew the meeting was taking place. Her statement was written for her by the tiny claque of right-wing extremists who manipulate her and use her for their own sinister ends.

Two things to remember about the murder of James Bulger:

(1) The killers were both aged 10.

(2) The previous comparable crime (those committed by Mary Bell) took place in 1969.

So let’s keep a sense of proportion, shall we?

by Sesenco on December 17, 2008 at 12:33 pm. Reply #

You need to read the rest of the speech to get the context – which of course Mail journalists are either not inclined or too stupid to do. It’s all based generically around “why I am a liberal” and is actually one of Nick’s better speeches.

by KL on December 17, 2008 at 12:45 pm. Reply #

Sesenco you seem not to have understood my point, for which I apologise, I will be more clear.

If the objective is to change public opinion towards a policy climate that imprisons fewer children, and uses more effective techniques, then raising the matter by citing the Bulger case was naive.

Once it sounds like you are calling for more sympathic treatment for monsters and criminals people will not listen to your more nuanced and intelligent points.

Wishing people were smarter, would listen more attentively, or the press were nicer is not going to make it so.

by Neil Berry on December 17, 2008 at 12:46 pm. Reply #

Excellent piece.

It’s high time a stand was taken against “The Politics of Offense” (sorry for the ersatz buzz-phrase!)

Clegg *must* not apologize, and must be strong enough to tough out The Mail. Not by mealy-mouthed equivocation, or by nuanced expansion; but by saying “Read what I said properly. Think about it. I don’t apologize.”

by Rob Stradling on December 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm. Reply #

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