Violent crime is at an all time high. Knife crime is out of control. Britain is more dangerous that it ever has been. Drug use is soaring.
The headlines are familiar to everyone. It would be easy to believe that young people are more violent, more dangerous, more criminal than ever before.
I’m not convinced.
Warning: The next few paragraphs may contain hazy and unreliable memories of my teenage years
Before we look at the modern crime statistics. Lets go back to the summer of 1984. I had left Belmont and hadn’t started 6th form yet.
I probably looked a lot like this.
Most of my friends had scooters or small 50cc motorbikes, and we spent that summer driving around on them, except for a week at Butlins in Ayr. I lived out at Sherburn Hill and there was lots of aimless riding around.
It was violent, a lot more violent than now. The threat of getting a good kicking for being in the wrong place on the wrong night was ever-present. Each little village or small town had it’s own gang, made up of people a few years older and nastier than me and my mates.
East Durham Wrecking Crew, Spennymoor New Breed, Chilton Trojans, Shotton Axe Men, and any number of “Aggro Boys” or “Boot Boys”.
Attending the match at Roker Park you had to steer clear of the Station Skins, and the Seaburn Casuals. The names sound daft, but the violence wasn’t.
This rather overheated clip from attention seeking Channel 4 youth strand Network 9 covers mostly the same groups. Watch for local MP Tony Blair running hard to try and jump on a moving bandwagon.
As you entered East Durham there was a spray painted sign identifying the area as the domain of the Shotton Axe Men. I am pretty sure I know who changed it to read Shotton Tampax Men, but I can’t reveal this for fear of retaliation.
No-one fucks with the Axe Men.
After that summer was over I moved to a different school, and didn’t see the same gang that much. I found new friends, and I changed my tastes to fit in with them, while desperately pretending that I hadn’t.
We were a violent cohort. The most violent cohort of the post war era. The group who started secondary school from the mid-70s to mid-80s were more criminal, more violent than any group before or since.
Most crime is committed by people under the age of 30; once you get past that point you straighten out, or get locked up for a long time. The shape of the graph is well established:
Someone committing their first offence over the age of 30 is most likely a paedophile, which explains the frosty welcome I got on the reception wing at Durham Jail.
The pattern of violent crime in the UK follows the life path of the 80s cohort:
Offending rates rose nationally as we left our teens, peaked while we were in our 20s, and then fell off. Britain has been a much less violent, much less criminal place ever since we passed our 30th birthdays. The murder rate peaked a couple of years later.
This is total offences (which tend to increase as the population increases):
And this is offences per 1m population, which show a peak representing my generation:
The sharp increase in recent years show an increase due to the London Bridge and Manchester Arena victims and the verdicts of homicide relating the the Hillsborough disaster.
Why we were so violent and criminal is harder to get a hold on. Some of it was the climate of the time, the violence of the miners strike, and noisy political rhetoric
I grew up watching the forces of Labour and the forces of Capital fight each other in the streets over the ownership of the means of production, and the willingness of the State to indulge in violence in pursuit of a political aim had a vivid impression upon me. The even more violent conflict in Northern Ireland was never off the TV, and plenty of kids from my school served over there.
Mostly they signed up willingly, but a few were in trouble with the Police and the Headmaster would offer to persuade the Sergeant to drop charges but only if the kid in trouble agreed to enlist. At the time this felt completely normal, now more like a press gang.
While violent crime has fallen our perception of crime rates has gone the other way. The papers are full of stories of rising violent crime, some of which are true, many of which are wildly exaggerated.
Are we are creating another violent cohort, and generation of young people with the same propensity to crime and violence that we had?
Looking at the statistics overall crime is falling, and while the murder rate in the UK is low by international standards, it has risen for the last 4 years, due to terror attacks and the Hillsborough judgement.
The knife crime rate is at an all time high, but the Home Office only started measuring knife crime separately in 2011 which is why every year is a record year. The problem is bad, but nothing like as bad as the era of the Glasgow Razor Gangs, or London Teddy Boys.
What is driving knife crime is drugs, the same dynamic as the County Lines problem
For many years the drugs trade in the UK was stable. There were lots of customers and it was hard for the police to take territory off the gangs.
Over the last decade or more this has changed. Drug use by younger people fell sharply from 2001 to 2010, and has decline again since then, albeit more slowly. Category A drugs like Heroin and Cocaine has declined the most, Cannabis and “legal highs” less so.
Not only were my generation more violent we were more druggy too.
Deaths from drugs have gone up, and deaths from opiate overdoses are at an all time high, but this needs to be seen in the context of lack of funding for services rather than increased use, and variable quality of supply.
As well as a declining customer base, drugs gangs, particularly in London are losing territory, at an unprecedented rate. Partly this is due to intelligence led policing, but largely it is economic.
Drug gangs carve out territory in deprived areas, where they can hide among a poor and often chaotic population. Cities like London have fewer and fewer neighbourhoods like that. As the City gets richer, and property more expensive, the territory of drugs gangs has become more and more compressed.
It turns out that the key weapons in the fight against drugs gangs are craft gin and artisanal bakeries.
London isn’t unique in this experience. Right wing New York Mayor Rudi Gulliani claimed that his zero tolerance approach reduced crime rates, while in reality rising housing costs changed the demographics of New York, reducing the number of poor males aged 18-30 in the City.
For the first time ever drugs gangs are having to fight for territory and customers in way they never have before, and the increase in knife crime is driven by that. I feel some sympathy for Sadiq Khan, who gets huge criticism for the rise in knife crime in the capital. There is an easy solution to reducing knife crime – back off drugs gangs – but that creates more problems than it solves.
The number of stabbings is a terrible thing, but it is the consequence of policy successes. The Met for the first time are putting drugs gangs under pressure, and the rise in violence is a sad side effect.
The County Lines trade (London crime gangs trying to establish territory in the Regions) is also linked to the reduction in customers and territory in big cities. We think that this is a new thing, but it has been around for decades.
The classic 1970s Detective Series “Strangers”, with Don Henderson as DI Bullman, was based on a specialist police unit tackling big city crime gangs operating nationally in small towns.
The solution to the County Lines problem is pretty straight-forward – reverse the cuts to regional police forces since 2010. Allow them to put the same squeeze on drugs gangs that the Met have.
I am very sceptical about the lurid headlines about crime, while I recognise the heartbeaking stories of stabbings and deaths of young people. The statistics don’t really back up the idea of a violent cohort.
There is a caveat – we are assuming that the statistics are correct. My own experiences with the police call into question some of the numbers reported. For example – some of the recent decline in crime could be due to shifts in patterns of crime – more on line offences, which the Police don’t have the expertise and resources to pursue, resulting in fewer recorded crimes. The shift of fraud reporting to the Action Fraud call centre looks likely to have reduced crimes reported. We tried to report an attempted short firm fraud last week and couldn’t get anyone interested in it.
While I am sceptical about the rise of a new violent cohort I am however convinced about one particular similarity – the way that noisy political rhetoric is feeding violence among young people.
Last year a 16 year from Durham was arrested by the Police for terrorism offences. He was found guilty just before Christmas, and currently is awaiting sentencing. He is the youngest person ever to be convicted of terror offences.
He planned to kill the Jewish population of Durham, and start a race war.
The willingness of politicians to endorse racist and anti-semitic language, and to promote conspiracy theories, legitimises violent and racist views among young people, particularly young white men who have been encouraged to feel that they are downtrodden and persecuted.
Politicians have demonised young people and youth culture in general for decades. From drain pipe trousers and winkle pickers to hoodies and rap music press and politicians have made young people the focus of lurid headlines, some true, mostly nonsense. Young folks today are more sober, more hardworking, and less criminal than my generation, yet politicians whip of fear of them to harvest votes from older voters.
Fewer lurid headlines, reversing cuts to children’s services, in particular sure start, and dialling down on rhetoric would help.
Sadly the chances of politicians giving up their populist bullshit is zero.