Violence was part of everyday life for cartoon character Andy Capp. Now society has changed, and with it the nature of crime—so why not the ways that we deal with it?by Ian Blair / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
In contrast to previous general election campaigns, crime did not feature prominently in 2010. Several opinion polls found that the issue was only the fifth most important to voters in Britain after the economy, health, education and immigration. But crime—and its ugly sister, antisocial behaviour—will always be with us, and sooner or later the coalition government will have to come up with some policies to deal with it.
Nothing in the manifestos or in the campaign showed that either of the parties in power (or Labour for that matter) had anything thoughtful or new to say about the subject, with the exception of a strange Tory proposal about directly elected police commissioners. And the coalition has so far shown no sign of recognising how crime is changing, or of learning from Labour’s record on antisocial behaviour.
To understand today’s patterns of crime, it helps to remember Andy Capp. It may be some time since readers of Prospect thought about Capp, a character created by the cartoonist Reg Smythe in 1957. He still appears in a long-running cartoon strip, published in the Daily Mirror (Smythe died in 1998 but others took over from him). Capp lives in Hartlepool and is a work-evading, feckless scrounger who comes out on top through ingenuity, barefaced lying and unscrupulousness. He is the pen-and-ink version of Albert Steptoe from the classic BBC sitcom Steptoe & Son. But there is one key difference between Albert and Andy: violence. In Capp’s world, violence is not only a fact of life but is celebrated and regarded as funny. Before it was cleaned up, there were two recurring scenarios in the cartoon, pub fights and a tussle at home with Flo, Andy’s battle-axe of a wife, usually portrayed waiting behind the front door with a rolling pin. The fights are shown as a cloud of dust with fists and feet sticking out at random; characters later appear with injuries or bandages.
The only parallel to this I can find is Asterix—but that cartoon is set in a context of war and occupation. Smythe was not drawing on a historical or mythical world but one which many of his audience would understand and some would have experienced—a world in which violence is part of everyday life and, in some contexts, perfectly acceptable.
I am 57. As a child in the 1960s, I was hit for misbehaviour at home (rarely) and at school (more often); I know people my age who were beaten regularly and sometimes viciously in both these places. When I became a constable in 1974, fights in pubs and clubs in Soho (where I worked) and in most of urban Britain were commonplace, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. Unless serious damage was done to someone, the police would generally calm things down and chuck out the troublemakers, who went home bearing the cuts and bruises as trophies of a good night out. In another example, film of the 1968 Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam war protest shows police and demonstrators engaged in a larger version of a pub fight. Those who were there on both sides of the barricades seem to recall the incident with satisfaction and even affection. Meanwhile, the police reaction to domestic violence, mirroring that of society at large, was not to interfere between man and wife unless the injuries were severe.
None of these positions remain. Society has changed what is permissible, probably because of a number of factors: greater equality between men and women, the changing nature of masculinity, the decline of manual labour, rising educational standards—albeit balanced by increasing alcohol consumption. But whatever the causes, the change is stark. Apart from an occasional smack to a toddler having a tantrum, assaulting children is no longer common. In cases of domestic violence, police forces require officers to explain why an arrest has not been made. Pub fights are less frequent (there is a telling moment in the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, where a character cries out in delighted surprise, “It’s a real fight!”). The outcry about the policing of the G20 demonstration, even before the circumstances around Ian Tomlinson’s death had become clearer, shows that what was acceptable 20 years ago during the poll-tax riots is no longer accepted.
People think that crime is much higher at a national than a local level
The consequence has been that violent crime—defined as actions which cause injury or serious threats to do so—has fallen steadily for about the last 15 years. The official statistics do not show a fall in violent crime when comparing offences now with those recorded before 2002-03—quite the opposite, in fact. This was because of a foolish agreement which attempted to make recorded crime a perfect representation of reality, so that a crime had to be recorded if reported even if the police officer did not believe it had happened. Moreover, the definition of violent crime was greatly widened, with the result that more than 50 per cent now falls into the category of—wait for it—”assault without injury.” It would be hard to conceive a more perfect weapon for opposition parties to beat a government with—as the then shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, unhappily showed during the election campaign. This is probably why the new government seems to be casting about for someone other than the home office to be in charge of crime statistics. Perhaps they will even give them back to the police.
In 2008-09, the annual murder rate in England and Wales was 651, lower than at any time in the past decade. Moreover, the number of children under 16 killed by strangers was two. In 2006, UN figures show that England and Wales had 16 murders per million population, far lower than the US at 59 and roughly equal to France, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany. (The figure for Colombia was 611.)
And yet the “broken Britain” mantra remains—not because we have become a more violent society, but because we have become a much more violence-averse society, in which such acts are widely reported and vilified.
But the decline of violence is only one example of the way in which crime evolves at the intersection of three forces—public values, public perception and criminal opportunity.
Crime is the most entrepreneurial of activities, in that it constantly adjusts to changes in market opportunity. One example is the theft of mobile phones. By the end of 2001, such thefts in London had risen by 53 per cent in a single year. As there are now almost more mobile phones than people in London, mobile thefts have diminished markedly because there is no longer any market in stolen second-hand phones. Similarly, burglaries in domestic homes are down by 35 per cent since 2002-03, driven by better home security and the falling price of consumer goods. (It is also difficult to conceal a 42-inch television under your jumper, striped or not.) In contrast, criminals have increasingly moved into cyberspace, with police in Britain and elsewhere struggling to deal with identity theft in particular.
The British Crime Survey (BCS), which doesn’t include all crimes but is a consistent measure, shows a drop in crime from 19.4m to 10.7m incidents from 1995 to 2009, while the number of crimes recorded since the rules were changed, that is, in 2002-03, shows a drop from 6m to 4.7m in 2008-09. New BCS figures published as Prospect went to press confirm this decline.
But this is not how it has felt—and that was both the achievement and the failure of new Labour. Tony Blair’s astonishing capture of the law and order agenda from the Tories in 1993 came in the wake of the murder of the toddler James Bulger. But Blair’s real genius was the discovery that antisocial behaviour rather than crime was the key issue that resonated with voters. He realised that people don’t define crime in the way statisticians, police or most politicians do. It is not burglary and robbery that affect people’s views of the safety of their neighbourhood, for these are rare events for most of them. It is the smashed bus stop, the louts in the playground, the needles and condoms in the stairwells and the angry and disturbed results of “care in the community” that define whether people feel safe. The famous criminological theory of “broken windows” is based on the idea that crime builds in neighbourhoods in which authorities are perceived to take no action against vandalism, begging and so on.
Blair’s insight resulted in various new laws and support for the reintroduction of neighbourhood policing. But on crime itself the language of the press releases and the legislation which followed (and the performance indicators for police) were framed in the punitive atmosphere of the late 1990s, after Blair had won his battle to be tougher on crime than the former home secretary Michael Howard. Katherine Beckett’s 1999 book, Making Crime Pay, suggests that public concern over crime is the creation of the media and politicians, who attribute it to permissiveness and the loss of respect for authority. But such a hardline approach is likely to be only partially effective (having at its heart the state-the-obvious theory that “they can’t commit crime while in prison”). But it is almost useless when dealing with antisocial behaviour, the causes of which are more complex.
Tackling antisocial behaviour requires action by a number of agencies; the criminal justice system and law-enforcement activity can only contribute. Some solutions are simple, such as better street lighting; some are simple but expensive, like after-school clubs or more sporting facilities. Others are more difficult. Recent work by the Youth Offending Team in Bradford found that many children on the brink of criminality had very poor language skills, with no understanding of words like “victim,” “appointment” and “solicitor,” and did not take on board either the help that was being offered or the warning given.
Perhaps the most heart-rending example was the case of Fiona Pilkington in Leicestershire. In 2007, she burned herself to death with her learning-impaired teenage daughter after years of taunting by local youths. The police were criticised for failing to take action against the gang, despite her many complaints. The abuse she suffered reportedly began some time earlier as a dispute between her son, who also has learning difficulties, and another boy. This case cried out for interventions by already overstretched social-work and mental-health teams, but for many reasons this did not happen effectively.
The Pilkingtons lived in a struggling but decent community. There are worse places, where the problems of poor education, poor housing conditions and high unemployment are ubiquitous. The housing estate where Shannon Matthews was kidnapped in 2008 by her own mother is one. The majority of counties in Britain have a few places like this. While most people got more prosperous under Labour, the very poorest did not. And if these representatives of broken Britain were largely unassisted in times of plenty, how much harder will it be to help them in this new age of austerity?
I chair a small criminal justice charity, the Thames Valley Partnership, which seeks to help public agencies cooperate across their organisational boundaries. We work, for instance, with the NHS and the prison service on ways in which to better handle prisoners with mental disorders or learning difficulties. Despite Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, speaking up with some welcome support for more prisoner rehabilitation, more drug programmes and more education in prisons, I have heard nothing from frontline service providers except fears of cuts to existing services and anxiety about the future.
Although links have been found between decreasing prosperity and the increase of different sorts of crime, I have little doubt that in the long term, crime will continue to decline across the board in most western democracies. Yet people’s perceptions of their personal safety are unlikely to improve—and the tabloids will lead the charge for ever more punitive approaches. Before the election, I heard the then shadow prisons minister, Alan Duncan, speak passionately about the need to work on the chronic problems of the prison population. Yet despite the language of the “big society,” I have seen nothing to suggest these words will extend to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour in an intelligent and evidence-based way. That will require long-term, targeted funding for projects concerned with literacy, restorative justice and substance abuse, plus programmes to help former gang members leave their pasts behind and help the families of prisoners stay together. It would need a continued commitment to neighbourhood policing and a strengthening of the probation service. Money will need to be diverted for all this. So far there has been silence.
Moreover, the new government has turned its face away from any fundamental reconsideration of the role of the police. This is despite many public bodies calling for something similar to the Strategic Defence Review and the fact that the last thorough examination of policing was the 1962 Royal Commission—before the introduction of the police radio and the panda car. It seems that things are just going to go on as before in law enforcement—and that will probably also be true of the even more complex worlds of penal policy and cross-agency co-operation on antisocial behaviour. At least in the modern, sanitised version of the cartoon, Andy and Flo go to marriage counselling.