Get tough on the fear of crime

One of the things that most irritated me about the Orange Book a few years ago was David Laws hectoring the Lib Dems for not doing enough to acknowledge how the fear of crime affects people’s daily lives (I paraphrase as I don’t have the book in front of me right now). Boris Johnson made a similar comment during the launch for his bid for London Mayor today and last week the Observer wrote:

The state cannot order civil society back into being, but it can facilitate the process. A first step is to recognise fear of crime is not irrational just because recorded crime is down. It is a reasonable response by a public feeling remote from the police.

Nonsense. Well, half nonsense. Because it is certainly true that the fear of crime is a debilitating thing, and that it needs to be dealt with. But we will only be able to get a grip on it once we recognise that it is indeed irrational, and stop pretending otherwise.

If the fear of something is greatly out of proportion to the possibility that it might happen, then that fear is irrational, full stop. All parties have been going on about the semi-mythical “bobbies on the beat” for decades, yet it is simply impossible to have a policeman on every street corner, at all times. The level at which a visible police force would start to ‘reassure’ the public would be simply unattainable. Spending a fortune on recruiting, training and retaining policemen who will then be given nothing more to do than walk around to ‘reassure’ people would be simply silly.

It simply isn’t good enough for parties and journalists to persist with this line. We don’t need the police to reclaim the streets, as the Observer suggests, but the public to. How we tackle such a seemingly intractable notion is the big question, but by asking it we might just find the answer.

One thing we, as a society, might try is to reverse the trend towards viewing anti-social behaviour as criminality. 12 years ago, we had more crime, but no-one knew what anti-social behaviour was. One of New Labour’s most pernicious legacies has been to convince people that naughtiness, rowdiness and petty vandalism is something the police should handle when in the past it was something the community itself sorted out. The more we concentrate on anti-social behaviour, the worse it seems. We can never win the war on anti-social behaviour because it is so mutable: unless all young people transform into angels en masse, there will always be someone doing something that upsets someone.

Worse, it seems to have created an antagonism towards the police that eclipses even the attitude when I was a teenager. I remember my sixth form being chased down Bromley High Street by coppers with dogs simply because the landlord at a pub we had paid to hold a party at smelt a spliff. That was a moronic over-reaction by the boys in blue. Now they are charged with enforcing curfews on any kid who doesn’t look like they have a place to go. You couldn’t invent a better system for alienating young people from authority if you tried.

I’m sure that round the edges there are things that governments could do to sort this unholy mess out, but ultimately it is up to all of us to actually turn this situation around. In my view, we need to develop a mass participation consciousness-raising campaign such as Full Stop or Make Poverty History, to persuade people that they are the agents of their own destiny, that they need to take responsibility over their own children and that they need to rebuild the adult solidarity. Such a campaign, if it could be made a success, would be one of the most liberating mass movements in our history. As such, it would inevitably come up against a political and cultural establishment – politicians, the police and of course the tabloid press which would all be emasculated by it.

How could we achieve such a thing? Haven’t the foggiest, sorry. Answers on a postcard please. All I know is that the alternative – to continue indulging the fear of crime – leads to a vicious circle of self-destructive madness.

In the meantime, I suggest we can make a start by doing things such as getting former policemen who admit to finding the concept of anarchism appealing elected as London Mayor. Just an idea.


  1. I seriously think that we shouldn’t bother fielding a candidate for Mayor of London. For one thing, we’re too late. The Ken v Boris contest is already well under way. For another thing, as you point out, our leading contender is a bit crap.

  2. Yes, there’s nothing quite like giving up and going home before an election has even begun to convince people you’re still a vibrant political force.

    I live in London and I’d like to be able to vote for a Liberal Democrat thankyouverymuch.

  3. Okay, I’ll bite. So in what way is Paddick not a serious candidate? Anyway, I thought you’d already declared your support for Boris Johnson (never knowingly over-serious)?

  4. I think Boris is a twat. But I thought that you were having a go at Paddick. Anyway, I’d tell you everything that was wrong with him, only I really know very little about him. And therein lies the problem. The candidate needs to be widely recognised to stand a chance. It’s the Susan Kramer factor. She’s a bit better known now, but then it was Susan who? Same applies to Boff and co for the Conservatives. They’re all just wasting their time.

  5. Brian Paddick was one of the most high profile – and senior – police officers in London. And I wasn’t having a go at him, I was serious. I am attracted to a candidate who admits to finding the concept of anarchism appealing – I do too. Like Paddick, I fully accept that it isn’t practical, but the underlying premise – that the onus should be on people to solve their own problems rather than leaving it to the state – is in essence what I’ve been arguing for in this article.

  6. Oh sorry, I only read the last paragraph. But I thought that anarchism was something only espoused by the lunatic fringe of the libertarian fruitcake fraternity. And therefore not a good thing.

  7. I’d just like to congratulate you on this post. I think it’s brilliant.

    I believe our political class, along with certain sections of the media, have tried very hard to make us distrust each other. After all, we might all be paedophiles, terrorists, or whatever the bogeyman of the day happens to be.

    I would also argue that attacks on trades unions, and the sale of public assets are part of this attack. Realising that the greatest threat to state power is voluntary collective organisations they have been undermined as far as possible for the last 30 years.

    According to what appears to be the current government paradigm, there are individuals, who will ‘choose’ services from the state, which will then get private enterprise to fulfil them. Any other type of organisation would just be ‘collectivist’.

    There’s only so long you can spend telling people that ‘there’s no such thing as society’, before they believe you, and begin behaving accordingly.

  8. Good post.

    As for Laurence and his ‘anarchy as an insult’ presumption, your comment made Brian Paddick more attractive. I too find the idea of anarchy attractive (at least anarcho-capitalism, mutualism and some proudhonist based thinking – those anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-capitalists don’t appeal at all, mainly due to their ). Indeed, in my more mischievous moments (as well as my more cynical or drunken ones) I suggest various anarchistic ideas to people to try and get them to rethink their state centred thinking.

    We do need to get people to take responsibility for themselves (and their immediate surroundings). The big error in collectivist visions of freedom is that they fail to take into account the pressures and responsibilities that freedom brings, they assume the collective can always take care of problems. Without taking care of your own problems (with or without help from others – this is not some desert island individual) you have no freedom because you become subject to every whim of whoever has the power.

  9. Was it really Laws who was hectoring the Lib Dems for not doing enough to acknowledge how the fear of crime affects people’s daily lives? I recall that the chapter on crime was written by Mark Oaten (or more precisely, by his researcher).

  10. Oaten wrote a chapter on prison reform. I was referring to the first chapter in which David Laws basically slags off everyone who doesn’t share his narrow vision of economic liberalism.

    Next time I remember to do so when I’m within arm’s reach of a copy of the book, I will give you chapter and verse.

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