Britain: riots and rights of parents to smack their kids

David Lammy is a young star in the Labour Party. He served as higher education minister in Gordon Brown's cabinet.

He did not come to prominence the easy way. Of Afro-Caribbean heritage, he was brought up by a single mother on a council estate (housing project) in one of London's poorest neighborhoods: Tottenham. He gained scholarships from secondary school through his Master's at Harvard before getting into politics and being elected to represent Tottenham in Parliament at the age of 27.

Lammy returned to prominence this summer when his constituency went up in flames during the first days of rioting that engulfed London and other cities around the UK. He was credited for bringing the temperature down.

Now he has created a stir by saying that a breakdown of parental discipline because of laws passed on how physical parents can be in disciplining children may have had something to do with the riots. The 2004 "Children's Act" specifically states that parents can smack their children – but without "reddening of the skin."

Leaving aside whether the government has any right to set such specific corporal punishment guidelines for the private matter of how people raise their children, the rules have caused resentment and confusion, according to Lammy.

"Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying: 'You guys stopped us being able to smack our children'," Lammy said in a radio interview on Sunday. The MP rowed back a little from that statement yesterday in a Guardian interview, "It would be quite wrong to suggest that smacking or not smacking was in any way responsible for the riots."

But the question of corporal punishment was out in the open. The fact that it came from a leading figure in the Afro-Caribbean community gave it greater prominence.

The Guardian commissioned author Dreda Say Mitchell, also from the black community, to write about the subject. She notes physical discipline is viewed with approval in her community and the working class in general where there is "a generalized contempt for supposed liberals with their 'go away and think about what you've done' approach to discipline."

On cue, The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, a white liberal, added to the debate, "I'm not backing down on this: the "liberal left" is against undue physical chastisement not because we're wet, or because we don't know how hard life can be (although we don't), and not because we don't come into contact very often with the social services. We're against it because children have rights; they are people under the law."

Lammy may not have intended to create this firestorm but it is doing his reputation no harm.  The ultra right-wing Daily Mail has an article praising him today, noting that London Mayor Boris Johnson, a conservative, is lucky Lammy is not running against him in the upcoming Mayoral election.

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