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The virtues of a democratic society ...

By Harry Throssell - posted Wednesday, 21 October 2009

A family and community horror story hit the headlines in England in September (2009). An inquest found a mother had killed her daughter and committed suicide two years before by dousing clothes on the back seat of the family car with petrol and setting fire to them. They were identified by matching DNA samples.

It was an act deliberately taken by the mother, Fiona Pilkington, 38, of Barwell, Leicestershire to bring an end to 15 years of harassment and abuse she and her family had endured at the hands of local youths. In the car with Ms Pilkington was daughter Francecca, 18, who had a severe learning difficulty.

The persecution of the family during those years also included pelting their house with flour, eggs, stones and urine, and regularly abusing the children, not only Francecca but also her teenage brother Anthony who is described as severely dyslexic. He was not in the immolated car but had also suffered torture, on one occasion beaten with an iron bar and locked in a shed at knife point.


Ms Pilkington had complained of the persecution many times to the police, but apparently they had never felt they could or should do anything about it. The local council had imposed a 300-meter exclusion zone round the family’s house but failed to enforce it. No one, it seems was prepared to help.

It is beyond belief the parents of the teenage gang were not aware of the “fun” their children were having at the expense of this family.

A neighbour, Donna Glover, was quoted by the BBC as saying “kids are just ruling this road … they see a policeman and just laugh”. The BBC commented that the police and local councils were partly to blame for the deaths because abuse by the gang of teenagers living on the street had been evident for a decade.

In making their finding of suicide and unlawful killing, the inquest ruled that lack of action by the police and local council officials were contributing factors. The mother experienced “stress and anxiety regarding her daughter’s future and ongoing anti-social behaviour” but received little help. Calls to police “were not linked or prioritised”.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said “the family suffered intimidation at the hands of a local gang, culminating in a sustained level of abuse that no family should have to tolerate”. He also said, perplexingly, “We do not tolerate anti-social behaviour, we tackle it”. The response of Leicestershire police was to be examined in further investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the local authority was also to be subject to further inquiry.

I was in England at the time and the story was wall-to-wall in newspapers, radio and television, although politicians were mainly consumed with their own survival in the forthcoming general election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the nose in formerly supportive newspapers. The brief note in The Guardian Weekly of October 2-9 read: “Police errors were partly responsible for driving a single mother to kill herself and her disabled daughter after years of abuse from youths in Barwell, Leicestershire, an inquest found. Returning a verdict of suicide on Fiona Pilkington, 38, and unlawful killing for Francecca, 18, the jury said police actions ‘contributed’. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating”.


This story of community dissension with the most unprotected members attacked viciously has serious implications. I was reminded of Germany in the late 1930s and 1940s when the pure white members of the Hitler Youth organisation were encouraged to sadistically punish, imprison and kill members of the population deemed to be different and unworthy because they were Jewish, black-skinned, or disabled, the hope being to produce a “pure white race”.

In the Barwell situation the persecution appeared to be without a philosophical agenda, more an excuse to feel superior to someone, anyone, picking on the most vulnerable.

The sociological theory of anomie seems to fit. This refers to the confusion that arises when social norms conflict or don't even exist. In the 1960s, Robert Merton used the term to describe the differences between socially accepted goals and the availability of means to achieve those goals. Merton stressed, for instance, that attaining wealth is a major goal of Americans, but not all Americans possess the means to achieve this wealth, especially members of minority and disadvantaged groups. Those who find the "road to riches" closed to them experience confusion and hopelessness about the meaning of life because an obstacle has thwarted their pursuit of a socially approved goal. When this happens individuals may turn to deviant behaviours to attain their goals, retaliate against society, or merely to "make a point".

Economic competition is the basis of modern society, with winners often having riches and privileges widely displayed in the publicity media. The losers suffer ignominy and may vent their frustration on those who may not have caused the problem but are an easy target.

In this year’s BBC Reith Lectures Harvard Professor of Government Michael Sandel emphasised the need in developed countries like USA (and Britain, and Australia) to return to a greater “sense of community” and advocated a “politics of the common good” which would rebuild the infrastructure of civic life rather than focus on access to private consumption. The virtues of democratic life - solidarity, trust, civic friendship - are, he said, “like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise”.

Barwell in Leicestershire appears to have a long way to go.

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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