Britain's youth: armed and dangerous

Violence and the fear of violence among young men is soaring - we need answers, not platitudes
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The Independent Online
I think that Mr Reggie Kray is puzzled that he has not yet received a call from Downing Street, or at least from the new Home Secretary. After all, if you really want to tackle crime, why not call in the experts? New Labour, New Twins. Mr Kray, currently a guest of Her Majesty's Prison, Maidstone, asked to see me to congratulate me on a film I had made some years ago about him and his brother. His late brother was slightly less chuffed at the time. I interviewed his wife, Kate, in the back of a car, one morning; by the afternoon, Ronnie had called to say that he was distinctly underwhelmed that I had been so familiar with his missus. He was even less impressed by one of the questions that I asked Kate: why are you marrying a declared homosexual with whom you will never be able to live? She said their love was pure; he said that it was none of my business and that I would be well advised to keep my nose out of it, or else I might manage to leave it behind somewhere.

Anyway, the surviving twin, now an elderly dandy, is much given to collecting ornate gold jewellery; he was carrying the equivalent of a small pawn shop around his neck when I saw him. However, he is a serious man and follows current affairs and reads the papers. He tuts and shakes his head over the young of today. But many of his supporters may feel that their moment has come. Over in the East End of London, any mention of the Krays brings a misty smile to the lips of ladies of a certain age, and an indulgent sigh of nostalgia to old men. Their answer to a wave of vicious assaults by young men is a simple one. It is to "bring back the Krays". Apparently, when Ronnie and Reggie were on the street no youngster would dare to break the rule that vicious, arbitrary violence was the exclusive privilege of the twins and their associates. This is garbage that ranks alongside the notion that the gangsters of the Sixties only "did it to their own". But even if it did hold the slightest smidgen of truth, Reggie would admit that today's young are beyond his ken.

In the past three years, 14 schoolchildren have died as a result of knife assaults. In the capital alone this week there have been some 60 stabbings. It would be comforting to say that this is all just a fringe activity among a small number of disturbed inner-city children; that there are just a few bullies trying to prove that they're "hard". However, this violence is not just limited to a few schools in big cities; attacks have occurred in provincial towns. What is worse is that fear of violence is fuelling yet more.

Government figures tell us that young men between 15 and 20 are more at risk of violent attack than any other section of our society. This was yesterday supported by a survey carried out by Dan Barraclough at The London Programme. Of 240 youths interviewed, two-thirds felt at risk of attack. But revealingly, his team's survey also showed that a quarter admitted to carrying weapons as a defence against attacks. The young people said that although they might be relatively safe on school grounds, on the way home they were "totally vulnerable". In the past, the answer for many children would be to run away, tell their parents or, in extreme cases, refuse to go to school. No longer.

Last month I sat with Frances Lawrence, the widow of the west London headmaster Philip Lawrence who was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old outside his own school gate, and talked to a group of young people, many of whom admitted to carrying weapons. The most telling response to the question, "Why don't you walk away from trouble?" was from a boy who said, "You say you can walk away. But they can come back, and they'll come back." Not one of a group of around 20 teenagers felt that they could trust teachers or the police to protect them; in fact the idea produced reactions ranging from scorn to hilarity. So if they have to rely on themselves, what do they do? The answer is to fight fire with fire.

Researchers at Exeter University have revisited a study they conducted 18 months ago, which showed that 2 per cent of young men carried knives; now the proportion has doubled to 4 per cent. If these numbers seem small, think about it this way: in a school with a thousand boys, 40 pupils will regularly be carrying weapons to school.

In some places, notably London and Manchester, there are even ethnic specialisms. Whites carry Stanley knives, orientals meat cleavers, and black boys favour the machete. Boys learn early that if you want to avoid prosecution you can clean your weapon with bleach and "get it right" for forensics. If you don't want to walk around obviously tooled up, carry a Lucozade bottle - it breaks easily and gives you a good edge. This is a world with expertise, a language and an accepted culture.

In Glasgow, police have instituted an effective regime of zero tolerance around teen clubs, in an effort to stop the late-night violence. In seven months, they've recovered getting on for a thousand weapons; but even they would acknowledge that they're barely scratching the surface of the problem.

The violence is partly driven by familiar causes: deprivation, alienation, and stress in families. It is, in some places, also a product of ethnic gang warfare about which the authorities seem puzzlingly silent.

Some part of the answer must lie in economic regeneration, in arresting the destruction of youth services, and in the provision of something for young people to do with acres of spare time. But there is something even more disturbing going on here that Mr Straw and his gang have to get a handle on quickly before the sporadic trickle of everyday tragedies becomes a tidal wave of young men's blood. In the last parliament, Labour went along with Michael Howard's opposition to a ban on knives on the grounds that it was impractical. It may be so, but Mr Straw is going to have to do better than that in power. We have to stop the growth of casual, tit-for-tat violence as a way of life among the young.

Unfortunately, I don't think the Krays can help us now, if they ever could. Reggie probably wouldn't last long in the average school playground of the Nineties; he may be safer where he is.