Monday, 30 January 2012
Crime in Britain; the horrifying truth
It is not an easy question to answer. Personal memories are unreliable, as people tend to romanticise the past. Historical research, particularly recent history, is heavily politicised and lacks objectivity. Statistics offer the only reliable, if imperfect way of understanding what life was like in the past.
Data tells us that 60 years ago that Britain was poorer and a less healthy place. People had lower life expectancy, and lived in poorer housing. But was Britain a less fearful place than it is today? How did people behave towards each other?
Historical crime data offers a damning indictment of modern Britain. In 1950, there were just 14 violent crimes per hundred thousand people. In 1997, that number had risen to 482. In percentage terms, that is a 3200 percent increase.
Why does the chart end in 1997? Thereafter, crime data is revised and redefined no fewer than seven times. Post-1997 data is simply not compatible with the numbers collected before that date. Insofar as more recent crime data tells us anything, violence remains broadly at the level it was in 1997. It seems to increased slightly towards the end of the 1990s. Somewhat suspiciously, it has fallen more recently.
Even allowing for data weaknesses back in the 1950s, it is incontrovertible that Britain was a safer and more law-abiding place 60 years ago. These shocking numbers point to six decades of unrelenting social disintegration on an unparalleled scale. Back in 1950, the probability of being a victim of a violence was almost zero. Today, we live under the constant and justified fear of being attacked by our neighbours.
Why did violent crime in Britain explode during the latter half of the 20th century? Personally, I don't have a simple answer. Tony Blair once famously promised that Labour would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." New Labour were certainly tough on the statisticians. Revisions to crime data was an recurring feature of Blair's time in office. AS for identifying the causes, Blair and his cohort could not get beyond a vague and implausible explanation based on rising poverty. After all, UK per capita incomes have risen more or less in parallel with the crime statistics.
Apart from data revisions, the debate on crime never seems to go beyond sentencing policy and the ever expanding role of high tech surveillance. The sad truth is that Britain has long since learned to endure this frightening increase in violence. We avoid a more meaningful discussion, because it would open up questions we would rather avoid. For example, did liberalizing divorce laws, lead to the disintegration of the family unit, traumatizing children, and creating a powerful stimulus to violent behaviour?
If you want to take a crack at answering that question, then give it a go. The comments page is open. Yet I can't help feeling that if the British people living in the 1950s could get a glimpse of what life would be like in 2011, they would be horrified at how far this country has descended from the civilized standards of that time.