Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth


Not long after the 1979 election, Home Secretary William Whitelaw had announced he was going full steam ahead on a key manifesto promise – the Short Sharp Shock.

To a euphoric Tory party conference in October 1979, the urbane and aristocratic Whitelaw told delighted delegates that detention centres for teen lawbreakers would no longer be ‘holiday camps’.  This played on widely believed, media stories of young hooligans leading cosseted lives behind bars.  “Life will be conducted at a swift tempo,” he assured the party.

The belief was that a regime of early wake up calls, military drill and manual labour over a three month period would shock young offenders out of a life of crime.  To break even the most determined spirit, periods of recreation could be denied, silence was the general rule with only 30 minutes of chat between prisoners permitted each day.

The Short Sharp Shock regime kind of resembled the opening half of the movie Full Metal Jacket – a mindless ultra-disciplinarian series of routines that aimed to bury liberal attitudes to offender rehabilitation once and for forever.  This was going to be punishment pure and simple and the duly traumatised young criminals would keep their noses clean from then on.

Curiously, prisoners at one of the four Short Sharp Shock centres, Glenochil in Scotland, were referred to as ‘trainees’.   They were assessed in the mundane tasks they were ordered to perform, like cleaning the floors, and given colour coded tokens to mark out levels of achievement.

Under the terms of Whitelaw’s 1980 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, any young offender banged up for less than four months at Glenochil could expect a regimented hell.  Dormitories spotless by 6.45am while prison officers with peaked caps and pulled down shirtsleeves tipped over their bed mattress for any minor infraction and ordered it remade.

Marching was seen to be the idea therapy for these youngsters.  Marched to breakfast, marched to their cells, marched to the work areas and then marched to their tea break.  They were even forced to jog on the spot until told to stop.

Some of this simply echoed the kind of regimes that already existed in borstals but with greater intensity and over a shorter time period.  But it also signaled a view in government circles that a crackdown was needed on Britain’s wayward youth, a reversal of the permissive society kicked off in the 1960s and perceived to have set in train some kind of moral decline.

But it wasn’t morals that these young primarily lacked.  It was jobs in the real world.  Most of those sent to the designated Short Sharp Shock centres had committed acts of theft or stolen vehicles and something like 90%, according to the Sunday Times, had no work at the time of offending.

In an unfortunate twist for the government, these kids with little by way of a future often found the regime a relief from the drudgery outside.   Effectively, it took their minds off how dreadful things had become in their shattered communities.

As one youth mused.

“I can’t say whether I’ll go out and pinch again or not, but I can tell you that drilling hasn’t made any difference.  It makes me better, I think.  I enjoy it, it passes the time more quickly and it makes us fit.  Next time, we’ll just run faster from the coppers won’t we?”

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3 thoughts on “Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth

  1. It done nothing for me except made me fitter and more able to lose the old bill when having it on my toes.

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