Thursday, August 21, 2008

Violent UK

A few weeks ago, my wife drove out from under a bridge at about 30 miles-an-hour when one of a group of hooded young people hurled a rock at the car which, luckily, just missed.

About five days ago, my wife and I were loading a couple of boxes into our car, about 4.30 in the afternoon. Three teenagers passed by, I’d guess between 13-15 years-old. One of them beckoned to me and shouted, “Ya f****ing bastard,” and so on… I had never seen him before. One of the others added further insults, and then the first one joined him again. The third one was pushing an empty shopping trolley down the pavement. He suddenly pushed it, with force, towards my wife, who stopped it calmly, turned round and carried on with what she was doing. All this time, the other two were gradually moving past and continued to shout insults until we’d got into the car and drove off.
I recognised one of them. His family (mum, dad, older brothers) are always in and out of prison – drugs, violence, little-gangster-type stuff. No big deal really, but things could easily gone wrong – the wrong kind of eye contact, an unthinking response, a whim – it only takes a few seconds to land someone in hospital with a serious head injury.

Two nights ago, my stepson was clubbing down the Cowgate in Edinburgh. About 1am, he was walking along the street with a friend when a gang of teenagers attacked him. He was very lucky. The gang members were so out-of-their-heads that they didn’t notice a police car parked 30 metres away. He suffered a few bruises and kicks to his shoulders and only one to his head before being rescued. To the police’s credit, they caught the gang. Could have been very much worse. He was shaken and a little sore, but fine.

What’s going on? To an extent, it’s been going on for many years. People being attacked or abused on the streets by complete strangers without provocation is hardly a new phenomenon. What seems to be new is the savagery of the attacks, the severity of injuries incurred. The number of reported (“reported”, of course, being a significant word) assaults hasn’t increased much in the past decade, but the severity of injuries suffered has shot up. The number of young people carrying knives has also increased. Beating people up is like a sport for some people – they go out for the sole, deliberate purpose of attacking others and causing real harm. The large number of teenage murders in London this year is symptomatic of a wider problem.

Solutions are another matter. The bland soundbites of politicians piss me off no end. Labour have had their chance and have failed. David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, talks of how he plans to be a “social reformer in much the same way as Margaret Thatcher was an economic reformer” (God save us), but he offers no solutions to social problems, no doubt because he is clueless and because the problems are too complex for a press release to handle. The other parties are no better in this respect. They witter on about a “lack of role models” as if a new Cliff Richard is going to have any appeal for young people today. They live on another planet.

Coincidentally, I received an invitation yesterday to be part of an audience for the ‘Save our Streets’ roadshow, organised by the News of the World tabloid. They claim the event is a response to rising violent crime on our streets. The roadshow will have a panel of politicians and an audience comprised of local councillors, victims of crime, special police constables and community groups and agencies. I have no interest in attending, mainly because although the tabloid will claim it has the interests of the nation at heart, its agenda will centre on itself. It wants to lead a crusade, to make itself look like the ‘voice of the people’, while achieving nothing other than (it hopes) increased sales. I’m unsure why tabloids feel the need to create a climate of fear and instability among their readerships, but that seems to be what sells. It will come up with a few soundbites of its own, a few slogans. It’ll no doubt call for more police on the streets in particularly violent areas (but where is the money for this?), tougher sentencing (which will make no difference at all), and regeneration of deprived communities (but how exactly?). The result is predictable and will make no difference to anyone. As long as the News of the World succeeds in making itself popular with its readers, it will be happy, and will continue to print lurid stories about how unhappy our society is. But the tabloids are one of the sicknesses at its heart.

I wish I had solutions myself. I see the need to tackle problems by breaking them down into components because the whole picture is so enormous that it can induce only paralysis. A project set up to respond to “Violence” has too big a problem on its hands. A project working on employment, family, and sociability issues with repeat offenders might at least achieve something. We need an entire cultural shift, that’s clear. Not all countries experience the UK’s wave of casual, deliberate violence. But I doubt the political, financial and cultural commitment exists to tackle the problems. I’m fairly sure these problems stem, partly at least, from a lack of respect, a lack of self-worth, a need to fit in with the crowd, and an increasing despair for a future where consumption is the only settled value and where the thrills of alcohol, drugs and violence seem to many to be the only source of escape from the self. An adequate response will need a huge amount of money (which always seems to be freely available for other people’s wars, but not for issues that really matter), but it goes far deeper than that.


BarbaraS said...

Dear Lord, but it is hard to 'turn the other cheek,' something I've tried to instill in the kids, but you do wonder sometimes. I feel sorry for people who are so full of frustration that they behave in this ugly manner. I always end up asking why, and can never answer satisfactorily.
You're right, the small approach does work, especially those that come from within. The big knee-jerk reactions from government just don't work - ASBOS, for one.

Matt Merritt said...

There's very little that I'd argue with there, Rob, and the incidents you mention are exactly the sort that, on another day, end tragically.
As you say, the pronouncements of politicians of all stripes are frustrating in the extreme, but Cameron's constant wittering on about "mending our broken society" winds me up more than most. I'm convinced that his party's insistence that there's no such thing as society, the pursuit of policies based on that belief, and the use of the police as a poltical weapon, throughout the 1980s, are the three main reasons for what has happened.

Hazel said...

Well said Rob, and I’m horrified at what you and your family have been through, even though things could have turned out worse, it is still emotionally traumatic to be in these situations. I’m so sorry to hear about it.

Loss of community (historically, if the parents were awful, the kids might at least mix and see some decent role models in neighbours) and a media motivated only by money should shoulder much of the blame. There is too much finger pointing of them and us.

Nevertheless, I still have hope. Having brought up three on my own and knowing them and their friends, there are a great many ordinary, good-natured kids who would be as horrified by this as we are.