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Domestic CP - September 2006
The Guardian, London, 25 September 2006
A worm's eye view
Left and right are equally loth to let inconvenient facts damage their cherished myths about Sweden, writes Andrew Brown
I have only once smacked one of my children, and sometimes I still feel bad about it. But I don't think what I did was, or should have been, a criminal act.
In Sweden, it has been illegal to smack any child since 1979, as people who wish to extend the prohibition will tell you. For instance, an article in last week's Independent said: "In Sweden, which famously banned smacking in 1979, there are plenty of reports of parents smacking children, none of which ever result in a prosecution ... The incidence of playground bullying and violence, and violence also among the adult population, has plummeted since the directive came in."
This was written by a very good columnist. Yet it made no sense at all: my own, half-Swedish son was born in 1979, and no Swede I know would claim that their country was a more violent society then than it is today.
So I wrote a snarky email asking the writer where she had got her facts from. She referred me to a report by someone called Professor Joan Durrant, which had been cited in the Scottish parliament in debates on smacking.
Durrant also wrote a pamphlet for Save the Children, which was widely circulated. The Save the Children pamphlet does not seem to be online, though the Scottish parliament website has an account describing Durrant's research, an attack by one of her critics and her response.
This leads to a predictable tangle of assertions about misleading use of the figures, from which she emerges claiming that reported statistics of violence tell us nothing about the real rate of crime. The website says: "She states that reporting rates are useless as a measure of actual assault rates because of their extreme sensitivity to changing definitions and public awareness of violence."
It seems to me odd for a social scientist to take this position of extreme agnosticism unless the figures suggest something she would rather they did not.
Sure enough, the Swedish government's official English-language summary states that "the number of reported assault offences against both children and adults has increased since 1975 and today lies at a level that is more than three times that of the 1975 figure. The largest increase occurred during the first years of the 1990s, when assault offences increased by 34% in five years."
When I looked at the more detailed Swedish tables, it turned out that since smacking was banned, reported assaults on children under the age of six have quadrupled; those on children under the age of 14 have gone up even more.
It is an important point that these figures do not show smacking at all: they cover assaults that were illegal even when smacking was allowed. Almost all the attacks on children under six took place indoors, and the perpetrators were known to them; older children were most likely to be attacked outdoors and by strangers. That looks like bullying to me.
Of course, this does not prove, or even suggest, that the rise in violence is because of the law against smacking. But what the government's figures do unambiguously show is something obvious to anyone who reads the Swedish papers for a week: that the ban on smacking has not made the country less violent. Why should anyone believe otherwise?
The answer surely lies in the mythic status of Sweden in the Anglo-Saxon world. If you are a rightwinger, you used to know that Swedes are constantly killing themselves in despair at social democracy, and now you also believe that they are terrorised by Muslim immigrants. If you are a leftwinger, you know that they are enormously, happy, peaceful, prosperous and enlightened.
The columnist concerned assured me no child had been killed by its parents in Sweden for 15 years. Yet this summer, the tabloids were full of the harrowing torture and eventual murder of a disabled 10-year-old boy by his mother and father. In fact, child abuse to the point of murder is very rare but not unknown. There is also in Swedish law a special crime of infanticide, which is punished less severely than murder. Five cases of that were recorded in 2005 and six the year before.
But the myths enjoyed by both left and right are far too useful to spoil with facts, even though a great deal of English-language information, including the crime statistics, is published on the web (http://www.bra.se).
The only germane statistic missing is any indication of how much Swedes actually do smack their children. On the Scottish parliament site is a survey suggesting that the incidence might have gone up a little since the mid-70s. But that does not prove anyone's point, so it is most unlikely to be believed.
* Andrew Brown is the author of The Darwin Wars: The Scientific War for the Soul of Man and In the Beginning Was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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