Crime

Do you want some?

There’s an interesting discussion taking place in the thread below, but I think commenters are in danger of conflating two entirely different strains of criminality and criminal.

There are sink estates – and not just in inner-cities – where the violence, gang culture and drug problems are of a different order of magnitude entirely to the what has become known as “anti-social” behaviour as practised on the streets of Middle England.

First, a story.

Neither my father nor my mother ever learned to drive, so a shopping trip into Cambridge only happened by bus and a visit to my grandparents in Durham and Dundee meant several hours on the east coast mainline. As my brother and I grew older, we started to dread these trips as we knew that as sure as God made little green apples, my father would have a confrontation at some point en route, whether it be a group of teenagers swearing on the back seat of the bus, or louts carrying cans of Kestrel getting on at Newark.

We would sit there, my brother and I, dreading the first signs of rowdiness from our fellow travelers as we knew this would be the cue for my father to rise from his seat, walk slowly to where the offending group was sat and ask, politely at first, for them to refrain from swearing in front of women and children. My brother would look at me aghast and we’d silently ask ourselves, “Why our dad? Why not somebody else’s, just this once?” Back then, we would, literally, curl up in embarrassment. Today, I’m bursting with pride just thinking about it.

Now, my dad was 6ft – in fact, he still is – and a broad Dundonian accent can do wonders for your ability to intimidate, especially when your quietly spoken requests are ended with “pal”. If there’s one thing you can guarantee about use of the word “pal” in Dundee, and indeed most of Scotland, it’s that the person using it is most assuredly not your pal. But truth be told, I really don’t think this mattered. What mattered was that someone, anyone, was prepared to take the first step, refuse to be intimidated and get in the face of those who thought they could misbehave with impunity. Not once, and I mean not once, did my father fail in his attempts to secure the agreement of the yobs to cool their beans. It sometimes took a couple of requests, or rather requests followed by demands, but eventually the swearing would stop, the rowdiness would abate and passengers could continue their journeys in peace.

I am crafted in my father’s image. In recent weeks, I have thrown teenagers out of parks, made them rein in their use of the “F” word in the local cinema, stood in the middle of the road to wave down a Vauxhall Nova with 18in low-profile alloys that had confused the street in which I live for Snetterton race track, and only tonight I asked a member of the chav crew who stand outside the local Spar to pick up his discarded cigarette packet. When I see a group of kids hanging around the Chinese take-away, I make a point of walking through them, not around them. Not to provoke trouble, but because the quickest route from A to B is in a straight line.

Now, I can imagine how this all reads to anyone who doesn’t know me. Lest you get wrong idea about my motivation for recounting these tales, let me say that in all cases listed above, I could easily have had my head kicked in. The point is I didn’t, and the lesson is that I didn’t even come close. Not because I’m 6ft 3in, built like a brick shithouse with a spider’s web tattoo across my face, but because chav bravado is a house of cards and the foundation stone is a belief that middle-aged, slightly overweight dads in cords will avoid all eye contact as they absorb insults like a sponge and count the seconds before they reach the safety of their 3-bedroom semi-detached. Chavdom has no coping mechanism for the pissed off, over-worked, under-paid family man looking for an outlet for his frustrations.

I think Shuggy is correct when he suggests the ordinary guy in the street needs to take more responsibility for the community in which he expects to raise his family. Do something about the moral decay that infests your towns and villages, or quit moaning. Seriously.

Which is not to say that Graham is wrong. Clearly, there are areas where actions such as mine will buy you a night in hospital…if you’re lucky. But then we’ve gone beyond anti-social behaviour and we’re really talking about social collapse on a grand scale.

In my area, there is no unemployment, no homelessness to speak of, there are decent schools, there’s no urban decay and the parents of the biggest yobs drive BMW X5’s and wouldn’t know the inside of a prison cell from a room at the Marriott. I’m aware things are very different in certain parts of South East London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. It’ll take more than a preparedness on the part of the law-abiding community to stand up to the yobs to turn things around.

I’ve mentioned previously that the willingness of successive Labour administrations to cede leadership on law and order to the Tories is our greatest shame. It’s hard to imagine a policy area in which ordinary working-class people have a bigger stake. For all my travails in the central Cambridgeshire ‘hood, it’s this country’s poorest, most vulnerable constituency who bear the brunt of hard-bitten criminality. It’s to be expected that not until anti-social behaviour began to blight to the market towns and sleepy hamlets of southern England would the national press take an interest, but we shouldn’t have had to wait for aggro on Acacia Avenue before a democratic socialist government stepped up to the plate.

So what’s to be done? Well, in some cases it means razing entire estates to the ground and dispersing communities that are a self-fulfilling criminal prophecy; in most it means more jobs, better schools, community-led initiatives, breaking the cycle of families raised with no male role models to speak of, and no doubt a hundred other things. These are the long-term solutions to immediate problems in areas talked about by Graham.

But there is more we can do.

Firstly, we raise the drinking age to 21. This country’s youth has a drink problem unlike any other. If such a law were to be as rigidly enforced as it is in most US states (I was turned away from bar after bar in Boston when I was 35 having left my passport in the hotel), I think we would witness an immediate improvement.

(During the summer, I stood at the bar in a village pub alongside my 15-year-old son. He is tall for his age, but ought not to be able to pass for 18. When the barman had finished with the previous customer, he approached us and asked my son for our order. The implication was clear. In Massachusetts, my son wouldn’t get within sniffing distance of alcohol for another 6 years.)

Secondly, we introduce some form of national service. It needn’t be military in nature – community initiatives, charity work, overseas projects would all be acceptable alternatives to time in the armed forces, but it would have to be compulsory and should last for at least 1 year. You could choose to complete this service at any time between your 16th and 25th birthdays and going on to tertiary education would exempt you. But standing on street corners kicking your heels until your parents turfed you out would no longer be an option.

Before anyone tars me with a Richard Littlejohn brush, they may want to consult the constitutions of Sweden, Finland and Denmark, those bulwarks of conservatism

If I sat on Labour’s policy executive, I would be calling for these two proposals to sit at the heart of our next manifesto. And not just because they would be sure-fire vote winners (18-25 year olds don’t vote, by the way), but because the residents of Govan, and Huyton, and Bemondsey, would reap an immediate benefit, and the wailing of liberal hand-wringers whose only experience of crime is when a pinot grigio is served with red meat, would be music to my ears.

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