Truth behind a mythical golden age: Statistics supporting the view of a more violent society do not tell the full story, academics say

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The Independent Online
THE DAY after a man is jailed for the random clubbing to death of a stranger with a baseball bat, an elderly man is stabbed, apparently without reason, while feeding foxes with his wife, and vandals try to derail a train with metal benches on the track.

On Monday, the director of the country's leading centre for disturbed children warns in apocalyptic terms of an increasing number of adolescents with 'no attachment to the norms and standards of society'; the following day, an arsenal of firearms is uncovered. Just another week in violent Britain.

At first glance, the crude crime statistics - now only published twice a year in order to allay public fears - support the view that we are living in a more violent and dangerous society.

Since the 1950s, crime has risen from fewer than 500,000 offences in 1950 to 5.3 million in 1991. This is a faster rate than population growth; in 1950, there were just over 1,000 crimes per 100,000 of the population; by 1975, the figure had quadrupled and by 1990 had doubled to reach 8,630 offences per 100,000 of the population.

The pattern is repeated in crimes of violence against the person - rising from 158 per 100,000 in 1976 to 365 in 1990 - and in robbery, which soared from 24 in 1976 to 72 in 1990. The last couple of years have seen an escalation in car crime and minor violence, giving London the highest levels of violent crime in the European Community apart from Berlin and Amsterdam.

The Conservative Party conference next month will contain ritual calls for the return of capital punishment, stiffer penalties for joyriders and equipping the police with handled batons. Delegates who talk about the abandonment of discipline and call for a return to 'family values' will be greeted with applause.

But, as Geoffrey Pearson, professor of social work at Goldsmiths College, London, points out, in 1958, the same conference heard a Home Secretary face calls for the return of flogging and pledged himself to a programme of short, sharp, shock detention centres to counter the 'sudden increase in crime and brutality'.

Professor Pearson said: 'There never was a golden age when we were comparatively crime free. Although people hark back to some peaceful period, which is always 20 or 25 years previously, the reality is that these eras never existed.' Random violence and street gangs are nothing new. 'Lager louts have always been around, in one form or another.'

In Hooligan, a History of Respectable Fears, Professor Pearson describes how the 'garrotting gangs' terrorised Victorian London in the 1860s, how it was rumoured that troops would escort respectable people to tea and the calls for 'gentlemen to arm themselves' because of the uselessness of the Metropolitan Police, a quarter of whom were dismissed for misconduct between 1866 and 1870.

At the turn of the century, the term hooligan emerged as a name for the street gangs, such as the Peaky Blinders and the Scuttlers, then causing public concern.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the country was beset with more gang fights, lawless slums and riots linked to the depression and unemployment. Between 1925 and 1929 in London, there was a 70 per cent increase in shop raids and 90 per cent increase in bag snatches. A 1931 study of juvenile delinquency, London's Bad Boys, included the warning to youth workers: 'You will be continually living on the edge of a volcano.'

Criminologists argue that reliance on statistics as a barometer of crime is wrong. Victim-based studies show high levels of unreported crime and that although crime is rising, it is not accelerating as fast as figures suggest.

Professor Pearson argues that it is not that there is much more crime about, but that attitudes have changed.

He said: 'Greater concern about violent crime may simply be a mark of a more civilised society, less willing to tolerate these matters. In the past people seem to have more readily accepted that life was cheap.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- THE INCREASE IN CRIME ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 All Violent crime 22,000 40,000 78,000 139,900 265,000 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Number of offences ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1976 1980 1985 1990 Violence against the person 77,700 97,200 121,700 184,700 per 100,000 of pop 158 197 245 365 Sex Offences 22,200 21,100 21,500 29,000 per 100,000 of pop 45 43 43 57 Robberies 11,600 15,000 27,500 36,200 per 100,000 of pop 24 30 55 72 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: Home Office Criminal Statistics -----------------------------------------------------------------

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