09/02/2012 05:31 GMT | Updated 09/04/2012 06:12 BST

Smacking: The UK Debate Continues

Politician David Lammy's remarks about smacking have brought the debate on child discipline more sharply into focus this week. He was, in part, reacting to a directive enacted by New Labour in 2004 which precluded parents from using a level of force that might incur a 'reddening' on the skin of their progenies. Lammy correctly lampooned the rather elitist and absurd character of this initiative - for those constituents with a darker skin tone, he noted sardonically, such 'reddening' wouldn't even be visible in the first place.

Nevertheless Lammy's comments also suffer from an element of the absurd. He argues that it is the out of touch, politically-correct interference of state sponsored social care which has lead to a paralysis in parental discipline, and that this was an important factor in the rioting and devastation occurring toward the end of 2011. Had Mum and Dad not been made to capitulate before Big Brother, then the old fashioned, home-brand clip around the ear style of parenting would have remained in vogue. And this, Lammy suggests, might have curtailed the images of blazing buildings and smouldering vehicles which became so depressingly familiar to us in the later part of last year.

The first problem with his argument is that the numbers are all wrong. Literally. According to this article by the Telegraph, the average age of the rioter was 22 years and nine months. In 2004, therefore, the vast majority of future rioters would have, in all likelihood, been far above the age where parents could still discipline them physically. But there is another part of Lammy's thinking which is more profoundly erroneous. He argues (persuasively) that if you are an upper middle class person living in a wealthy suburb, your children are unlikely to face the same depredations their working class equivalents would encounter in poorer areas - the incentives or pressures to join gangs, for instance. Working class parents sometimes need to use the more forceful means of corporeal punishment, albeit 'judiciously', in order to make certain their children are steered firmly away from the real and perilous dangers which confront them.

Here, however, the problematic nature of Lammy's train of thought becomes apparent. It is, to all intents and purposes, a circular argument. Working class people, Lammy stipulates, need to be allowed to smack their children in order to help avoid the type of social unrest which underpinned August 2011. At the same time, he wants to argue, it is the prior existence of social problems like gangs on estates that create the justification for smacking in the first place. Hence the idea of corporeal punishment as a means to nullify social unrest contains the paradox that such punishment is symptomatic of social unrest in the first place. According to this model - smacking eliminates social problems while simultaneously expressing them.

Though much of what David Lammy has to say about the differences which working class parents face in comparison with their upper class counterparts is true, nevertheless the overall thrust of his argument is somewhat cynical and demagogic. He is trying to create a point of contact between his politics and his working class constituents. He is trying to reconcile his careerism with a grass roots ethic. He exercises genuine empathy regarding the practicalities of parenting in more difficult economic circumstances - but at the same time he achieves the reactionary sleight of hand which allows him to focus on 'discipline' at the expense of the genuine structural-economic inequalities that provide the overall framework for such discipline.

Lammy laments the loss of the ability of the working class parent to do his or her job. For this, his tone feels sympathetic, as it is not the fault of the parent that they are unable to control the child especially in light of intrusive state regulation. In actual fact, however, the logic of Lammy's line here is merely a more palatable take on the old Tory toxin that it is the 'bad' parenting of the poor which truly creates social unrest.

Such an approach is conservative to the core in as much as it tends to focus on a symptom rather than the underlying malady. The US comedian Chris Rock once noted how establishment commentators would always lament the corrupting effects of crack cocaine on the ghetto - "Yeah like the ghetto was so nice before crack" - quipped Rock, "like everyone in the hood had a yacht, a mansion and a swimming pool, and crack cocaine came by and dried it all up."

The difference between those establishment commentators referenced by Chris Rock and David Lammy is merely the choice of symptom they use to predicate their understanding. It is a shame, that having come from a deprived area himself, Lammy chooses to focus on a symptom rather than the root cause - i.e. the systematic exploitation of the financial system by super-banks, and our government's commitment to propping them up at the expense of ever increasing poverty.