Is Britain really a worse society?

Crime is up but picture is complex
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The Independent Online
Are we now living in a more violent, crime-ridden and disagreeable society than ever before? That is the question raised by this week's moral debate.

Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered teacher Philip Lawrence, says she wants a less violent society based on common civic values. But the debate presupposes that a period once existed when society was more ordered and respectful - the kind of place that older teachers, police officers and John Major in warm-beer mode might look back on fondly.

Although crime figures are rising, the true picture is more complex - suggesting that we are looking back through a distorted glass. Professor Geoffrey Pearson, professor of social work at Goldsmith's College, London, who has examined the history of fear of crime, says: "I bet London today is much less violent on the street than 100 years ago."

The figures show that crime has risen steadily since 1945, although the rate of increase has now begun to slow down after a peak at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1950, there were just over 1,000 crimes per 100,000 of the population; by 1975, the figure had quadrupled and now stands at more than 9,000 after topping 10,000 in 1991.

In 1945, there were there were 492 homicides, rising to 745 last year. During the 1950s, a decade often cited as period of social calm and cohesion, the annual murder rate ranged between 251 and a 1952 high point of 400, a figure that was not to be reached again until 1967. It has not been lower than 500 a year since 1977. Robberies have soared from 921 reported cases at the beginning of the century to 1,033 in 1945 and 68,074 last year, a figure which doubled in a decade.

But the figures can confuse the picture. While the incidence of rape has almost certainly increased, changes in policing, crime recording procedures and social attitudes mean part of the huge rise on paper is because more is reported. Home Office research also shows a link between economic prosperity and violent crimes while property crimes soar in recessions.

At the same time, there will always be individual crimes of great horror like the Lawrence and Bulger murders and the Dunblane killings - which bear no relation to statistics but somehow come to symbolise fractures in society. But others, such as the Moors murderers and the West case, become less emblematic.

Professor Pearson, said it was wrong to assume that if the crime rate was going up, society was breaking down. "History shows that people are saying exactly what they were saying 150, 200 years ago about young people and morals going to pot. If they're so sure that the world was a better place 40 years ago or whenever, why is that the people living then didn't understand that?"

There never was a golden age, he argues; in the 1950s Tory party conferences also featured Home Secretaries calling for the return of flogging and promising programmes of short sharp shock. In his book, Hooligan, A History of Respectable Fears, he describes the garroting gangs that terrorised Victorian London and the public concern in the 1860s over the inadequacies of the Metropolitan police.

Professor Jock Young, of Middlesex University's Centre for Criminology, said there had to be some perspective. "The homicide rate in the Middle Ages was dreadful," he said. It had declined to 1900 before turning back up, with a notable rise from the Fifties onwards. Some commentators initially attributed that increase to more reporting, but, Professor Young said, "it went up so much there is no doubt that it really did go up."

Although some, such as Victim Support, argue that there is a feeling of greater brutality in some crimes than there used to be, others say that they simply did not receive the same scrutiny. Helen Edwards, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said parole boards examining violent offenders believed the cases were just as nasty 20 or 30 years ago. "They just didn't get the same attention."

Andrew Marr, page 17