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.

NPG x171951; William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, Viscount Whitelaw by Bassano
Whitelaw – enforcer of the Short Sharp Shock

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?”

Bands that cancelled gigs when Bobby Sands died in 1981


sands
Bobby Sands – IRA terrorist died on hunger strike

In May 1981, IRA (Irish Republican Army) hunger strike Bobby Sands died in prison.  He’d been elected as an MP from his prison cell where he and other IRA members, banged up for terrorist offences, had refused to eat for weeks.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher basically refused to yield and Sands popped his clogs. Thatcher was not prepared to treat IRA inmates as political prisoners – which was their demand.

As a result of his death, many bands cancelled their gigs in Ireland at that time.  Not so much out of sympathy for Sands – though some may have supported his stand – but because of security fears.

One band, Matchbox, said they were “very nervous about going” over to Ireland.  Heavy metal combos Girlschool and Vardis also decided to stay away from the Republic of Ireland, under advice from the gig promoters.

It’s hard to believe now but going over to Ireland was a big deal at this time for many UK bands – especially in the north where ‘the troubles’ were in full force.  Every week, people were being killed in sectarian murders between Catholics and Protestants – as well as clashes with the army, police and bombs going off in shopping precincts and other meeting places.

The troubles also spilled over on to the UK mainland and two years before, Lord Mountbatten – a member of the Royal Family – had been assassinated while on holiday in Ireland.

When The Specials went to play in Ireland they made great play of the fact that as they had done in England, they were going to plead the case for unity among the youth and against the horrible divisions that had led to very real bloodshed.