A crime against expectations

Click to follow
The Independent Online
How suddenly stereotypes change. Among countries, Britain was the ageing aristocrat fallen upon hard times - decent and law-abiding but fundamentally exhausted, an object of curiosity, sympathy even, as it slipped gently into history's twilight. No longer. Our dynamic economy, our vigorous new government are said to be the envy of all. But, it seems, we are also world-beaters in a less flattering sense.

Every now and then, a piece of data comes along to turn received wisdom on its head. The latest example is the International Crime Victimisation Survey. England and Wales, we learn, lead the nations of the industrialised world in lawlessness. What happened to that peaceable land whose policemen did not need to carry guns, which looked at violent crime on the other side of the Atlantic with a mixture of scorn and baffled dismay? Now we are the objects of that dismay: a nation apparently of muggers, burglars and car thieves, whose criminality leaves even America trailing in its wake.

But how could this be? One simple answer is, maybe it isn't, given the tendency of crime surveys based on evidence from victims to exaggerate the problem. But if such has happened with Britain, then why not with the other 10 countries covered by the report? And most people would agree that the findings do correspond to individual experience. Even in person- on-person crimes such as assault, mugging and rape, supposedly American specialities, we lead the field.

Admittedly there are consolations, though mostly of the schadenfreude variety. What about the Dutch, long reputed to be the continental country with which we have most in common - civilised, peaceable and tolerant? Now, it transpires, they are as bad as we are; probably thanks to a certain over-tolerance in the matter of drugs policy. And what of stodgy, once squeaky-clean Switzerland, third among the 11 countries in the league table? Drugs again may or may not be the culprit. But in any case, Orson Welles' immortal line in The Third Man about the cuckoo clock being Switzerland's answer to Italian wickedness now stands in serious need of revision. And not all of Britain is rotten. Northern Ireland, the name on the list most associated with mayhem and violence, appears the safest place of all.

Some lessons though are indisputable. Britain has to draw on the US experience, and realise that enlarged police powers, rigid sentencing policies and bulging prisons do little to reduce crime. True, crime rates are falling in the US, in some cities like New York by stunning proportions. The reason, however, is not an Anglo-Saxon predilection for locking people up and throwing away the key, but rather the ageing of baby-boomers (crime is above all a young man's business) and a realisation that prevention is better than cure. "Three Strikes and You're Out" (or more exactly, in for life) is all very well. But in America, an increase in police on the streets, and community initiatives like Neighbourhood Watch have done far more to reduce crime. To paraphrase Tony Blair, you need to get tough on crime, but even more on the causes of crime.