Putting a public face to crime prevention

Until I heard Tony Blair's announcement of "the end of the 1960s liberal consensus on law and order", I hadn't realised quite how long the Liberals had been in power. It reminded me of canvassing on a council estate some years ago and overhearing a woman elector say to my Liberal Councillor colleague, Jim Wright, "I'm not voting for anyone; you're all the same when you get in." Jim's prompt response was the question, "And tell me, madam, what did you think of the last Liberal government?"

The consensus of the '60s, such as it was, missed out key elements of the kind of society that those who took time off from riotous living - much of which was mythical and certainly passed me by - envisioned as "liberal". It was much more a mild social democratic style, characterised by the term "Butskellism", coined by The Economist in 1954 to denote the general consensus between R A Butler and Hugh Gaitskell, Conservative and Labour Chancellors respectively, on progressive economic policies. By the 1960s there was a general and complacent sense that economic growth would continue indefinitely and that people's lives, certainly as measured by consumer goods, would go on becoming more comfortable.

It was on the back of this sense of well-being that the changes in social policy, now rejected by new Labour, were introduced. Social cohesion was already being eroded but any worrying changes in the life of the local neighbourhood could be countered by the individual's better economic situation. The apparently inexorable march of progress was shrewdly summed up by Harold MacMillan's 1959 winning election slogan, "You've never had it so good."

As the 1960s unfolded the reforms in law relating to abortion, divorce, homosexuality and censorship were not imposed on an unwilling population by wild eyed extremist politicians, but were rather an attempt to bring the law into line with broad public feeling on these issues, and, more importantly, to put the regulatory force of law behind civilised attitudes rather than have desperate women seeking back street abortions, those separated unofficially, gay men in settled relationships, and progressive playwrights, vulnerable to prosecution by over zealous authorities.

Blair and Blunkett might, of course, argue that these issues are not the vital issues affecting law and order, except insofar as they influence the broad political atmosphere, and that it was the liberal attitude to crime and punishment which they are determined to reverse. It is certainly true that corporal and capital punishment were abolished but to believe that these were in any real sense deterrents flies in the face of the evidence. A glance at the punishment book of any school would reveal the same names occurring time and again. And murder has never been an offence that was influenced by any rational consideration of the consequences.

Where there was no liberal consensus was over the nature of human society and its ability to evolve naturally, with crucial mechanisms for inhibiting anti-social behaviour and for promoting community values. The most disastrous policy of the '60s was the obsession with the wholesale demolition of residential areas and of High Street shopping areas that had developed over centuries. The bulldozer became the false symbol of progress, and, in building terms, revolution rather than evolution transformed the urban landscape overnight.

I recall standing with fellow Councillors and with Council officials on Hall Lane, just by Armley Prison, and seeing the Chief Public Health Inspector wave an arm coldly over the long streets of solid terraced houses that dropped down to Tong Road. "Type III back-to-backs, all unfit," he announced, thus condemning many hundreds of proud local residents to an uncertain and bleak future. One constituent, who was subsequently rehoused into a grim tower block, later said to me, "they said my house was unfit because it was back-to-back; now they've put me into a flat which isn't just back-to-back but top to bottom as well!"

Improvement not demolition was needed if these well entrenched urban communities were going to be able to maintain their identity and their ability to police themselves. Ronnie Bright, the local copper, lived in the area and was involved and in touch. It did not need police cars racing down from a police station four miles away on the ring road. What we got were two out of every three residents dispersed elsewhere and those able to stay in the area housed in new developments so bizarrely arranged that any burglar, graffitist or vandal could not be seen from one house to another. No wonder that law and order broke down as soon as unemployment and recession began to bite. As a senior police said to me at the time, "we're policing your mistakes."

Blair and Blunkett are hopelessly out of touch if they think that they can impose law and order. We have to create the physical and social conditions for communities to feel strong enough to take action themselves and to work with the police. Crime is detected by the public not by the police. We have the highest number of police in our history and we clamour for more. This feeds the fallacy that the police can somehow be the "first line" in preserving law and order. Paradoxically, we have far too many police and far too few strong neighbourhoods.

Finally, deterrence is very little to do with punishment and everything to do with the likelihood of being caught. Whilst we only catch around 17% of burglars the odds are so good for the criminal that the punishment is immaterial. And if you don't believe that, why is it that drivers are now driving much slower? Have the penalties for speeding increased? No, but the advent of speed cameras has made the likelihood of being caught massively higher. That is the deterrent.

21 July 2004