Colin Ward: An Inspirational Anarchist

I was just once in the company of Colin Ward, one of the leading anarchist writers in post-war Britain.  Although I was on the outer edges of the group to which he was chatting, I remember thinking, ‘ what a lovely and fascinating bloke’. Sadly he died  a week or so ago.  He is perhaps best remembered for his writing on housing, his support for the squatters movement in the 1940’s, his advocacy of ‘anarchy in action’, direct, mutual and cooperative self-help.

However his great book from a Youth Work point of view is ‘The Child in the City’. Sadly I lent my copy, never to be returned long ago, but I’ve still got a note reflecting the blurb on its cover.

In an evocative and panoramic account of urban childhood, Colin Ward brings to life the myriad and subtle ways in which the child has used the street in the past and still does today. Against this background he asks whether it is true, as very many people believe, that something has been lost in the way children experience their urban surroundings; why some children show endless ingenuity in exploiting what the city offers while others are isolated and predatory; and what can be done, at a time when a significant proportion of the city’s children have come to be at war with their environment, to make the links between the city and child more fruitful and enjoyable for both.

He wrote in this vein over thirty years ago. And as long as we struggle to ask the questions of and proffer the alternatives to the ‘policing of the child in the city’, his legacy will live on.


Chatting Critically to Young People about …..Drugs

An Entitelment for All- Drugs

For many a year Drugs Education has been a lucrative source of finance within Youth Work. And, of course, it has seemed  utterly the right thing to be doing. None of us want to see young lives wrecked by drugs. And yet, of course, many of us take drugs – between 2 and 5 million cannabis users in the UK – and stay on the rails. I’m not saying anything special here, except to ponder whether the overall thrust of the drugs awareness approach reveals it to be the educational wing of  a failed global ‘War Against Drugs’ strategy?

Brazil’s former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, co-authored the recent Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. He declares the emperor naked. “The tide is turning,” he says. “The war-on-drugs strategy has failed.” A Brazilian judge, Maria Lucia Karam, of the lobby group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, tells the Guardian: “The only way to reduce violence in Mexico, Brazil or anywhere else is to legalise the production, supply and consumption of all drugs.”

This passage is taken from a challenging counterweight to prevailing orthodoxy, The War on Drugs is Immoral Idiocy, written by Simon Jenkins. I don’t agree with him at every turn – not least with his opening sentence – but there is much here for youth workers to ponder. Does this wider political context carry any implications for practice?


Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 1:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Youth workers: Soft cops after all!?


At the weekend, on the Friday and Saturday nights of such concern to New Labour, youth workers and the police will be found hand in hand on the streets, monitoring the ‘negative’ activities of young people. I’m not sure how widespread this phenomenon is, but to my knowledge it is happening in at least two North-West authorities and down in the Metropolis. I’d like to say that I’m astonished by this union of the State’s ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ policepersons, but my display of stunned surprise would be less than convincing. However I am very interested in your views on how we’ve moved to finding such ‘joined-up policing’ ordinary and acceptable: all the more so given the recent hue and cry about police brutality and murder at the G20 Summit – see my rambling rant ‘Policing the Crisis’ in April.

Back in the early 70’s I can remember the local bobby being on the youth club management committee, but as the decade wore on matters became less cosy. Escalating social unrest increased levels of distrust between young people and the police. As youth were increasingly moved on from their gathering places, as a combative punk movement grew, there was a tacit agreement that the police were not welcome in our youth clubs. By the early 80’s suspicion had deepened further, fuelled in the inner cities by the use of  Stop and Search [SUS] to harass black young people and the  consequent uprisings in such places as Brixton and Toxteth. In Manchester a major controversy broke out over the police setting up their own youth clubs. As I remember  the Youth Service published a policy document explicitly refusing police access (without a warrant) to its facilities. In Leicester where I worked from 82 to 84 relationships between black and Asian projects and the police were fraught with tension. Inevitably police repression during the Miners’ Strike deepened the chasm between youth and the ‘armed bodies of men’ in the coalfields. Up in Derbyshire, where I’d moved, the Police Liaison Committees were abandoned by the Council for a number of years as a gesture of support to the working class communities brutalised by the occupation. In the youth centres of Bolsover and Shirebrook the police were personae non grata.

From there though my memory becomes less sharp as the antagonism lost perhaps its edge. Thus, back in Wigan in the 90’s, there was a joint desire from the Council and the Police Authority to rehabilitate a working relationship. When the Youth Service was savagely cut as a result of rate-capping, the Police were in the forefront of criticising the loss of jobs and closure of youth centres. In the aftermath I found myself forming a relationship with the Inspector for Community Affairs, by now an influential member of the Services for Young People Committee. Yet with all its contradictions there remained an agreement that we should not become too close: that youth workers must be understood as acting on the side of young people. As a concrete example, there was much concern at the time about identified ‘hot spots’ where young people were alleged to be causing trouble. The pressure was to divert youth workers to these troublesome bus shelters and street corners. In countering this we sought funding for and created a team of Youth Mediators, who were as independent as possible both of the Police and the Youth Service. Their task was to make the first intervention into a so-called ‘hot spot’, charged with the task of interviewing and mediating between all those concerned. In this process of mediation it was stressed that the youth workers and police had different and often conflicting perspectives. The initiative was beset with dilemmas, but its underlying rationale was to maintain a distance between the youth workers and the police, even when the latter were dressed in the garb of community constables.

As for the present situation, within which the Police on the one hand run Safer Neighbourhood football and netball projects, whilst instigating ‘harass the hoodies’ schemes on the other, what are the views of youth workers about their relationship with their uniformed ‘partners’. This question is made all the more pertinent when even the media sympathetic to the New Labour project in its infancy mourn a decade of authoritarianism and hypocrisy – see Larry Elliott in the Guardian. It is becoming common-place to suggest that New Labour has lost its moral compass. This is misplaced. New Labour never possessed a principled political perspective.  Following years in the wilderness, its raison d’etre was to be in power, to possess power for its own sake. And this is where there are those within Youth Work, who need to take a breath about what they’ve been up to.  In accommodating to New Labour’s oh-so weary blaming of the victims, in cosying up to the forces of law and order, haven’t they lost their ethical compass? Are they revealed to  be no more than cops in jeans and trainers?

Published in: on May 12, 2009 at 10:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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