Admit it: crime, yobs and hooligans are inevitable in a free society

'Fixed penalties and child curfews are the new wheezes, but even the plods know they make little difference'

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"A bill will be introduced to reform the sentencing and supervision of serious and persistent offenders. Legislation will be introduced to support the fight against organised crime, including a National Crime Squad."

"A bill will be introduced to reform the sentencing and supervision of serious and persistent offenders. Legislation will be introduced to support the fight against organised crime, including a National Crime Squad."

No, those were not the words that the Queen uttered during her speech opening the current pre-election parliamentary session, but they were hardly much different. The words quoted were spoken by Her Majesty, but when she opened a previous pre-election parliamentary session, on behalf of John Major's Government - prior to the 1997 general election.

The prospect of an election but a few months away is therefore underscored by the familiar litany of crime measures in the Queen's Speech, and they provide some answer to the Prime Minister's famous plaintive cry in a leaked memo a few months ago for some eye-catching populist announcements "with which I should be associated".

For the last 20 years, the throughput of legislation to "tackle" various aspects of crime has multiplied. Umpteen Criminal Justice Acts, plus the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the Youth Crime Act, the Custodial Sentences Act, and various Magistrates Acts, to name but a few offerings to that demanding political mistress Ms Laura Norder, have tumbled out of the legislative machine. If there was a correlation between legislation passed and crimes committed, we should by now have established the most docile, law-abiding society in the world, with nothing more than a little poaching to trouble us.

And yet there is an almost perceptible public yawn as the main parties seek to out-Widdecombe each other on anti-crime legislation. Even Mr Blair, during his Commons speech, let the cat out of the bag on this, to great merriment in the chamber, when he accused Mr Hague of embracing a "load of nonsense from the shadow Home Secretary - most of which we are doing in any event".

That Mr Straw and Mr Blair have decided to purloin the Tories' traditional law and order rhetoric, in the same way that they stole their economic clothes several years ago, as Charles Kennedy observed, has long been clear. The extension of child curfew orders, parental control orders and fixed penalty tickets continue down a familiar path established by Willie Whitelaw's "short sharp shocks" and Michael Howard's "boot camps". All these measures are, essentially, gimmicks designed to appeal to voters, and most will end up, eventually, abandoned, with no appreciative influence on the lawbreakers.

One day, a bold politician will recognise that crime and disorder has always been, and will remain, a regrettable and inevitable feature of a free society. There has rarely, if ever, been a time in history when tranquillity ruled our streets. Short of a police state, we are destined always to have to cope with drunken louts, hooligans and yobs. ("Hooligan" and "yob" are, after all, 19th-century coinages.)

It has been forever thus. Even Harold Perkin, in his book The Origins of Modern English Society, noted that until 1850, the English had been one of the most "aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world". Members of Parliament, whose proceedings still end with the daily cry "Who goes home?", could not leave Westminster at night without fear of thuggery, and needed their own security men to chaperone them home.

It was hardly much better in the rural areas. Reports of drunken and yobbish behaviour dominated, for example, the yellowing copies of the newssheets in deepest Lincolnshire market towns such as Louth and Horncastle. If there was ever a "golden age", it only existed from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Perhaps the two world wars did, even as they wiped out successive generations of young men, create a stabilising social influence or cohesion. Nearly every family in the land had become accustomed to the impact of conscription and the discipline of army life, and this transmitted itself to the parents and teachers of the 1950s, scarred by organised fighting against foreign enemies rather than the next-door neighbours. But this was merely a momentary respite from the historic norm.

Ann Widdecombe is convinced that the rot set in for the current apparent lawlessness in the late 1960s and the 1970s, thanks to the social revolution of the times - underpinned by the liberal attitudes of Roy Jenkins during his stint as Home Secretary. Labour responds by adding that the Tory economic policies of the 1980s scarred Britain by causing mass unemployment, and Thatcherite policies increased social division and promoted materialism and selfishness.

But most drunken and yobbish behaviour now comes complete with a thick wallet ready to be spent in the pubs and clubs. It would appear that wealth and the feel-good factor play as big a part in today's antisocial behaviour as poverty was once supposed to. So Labour have had to amend their diagnosis and even blame increased prosperity as a contributory factor.

But whoever is right about the historical roots of the decline in civic decency and manners and the rise in boorishness and crime, it cannot be easily addressed just by passing legislation. Child curfew orders and fixed penalties are the latest wheezes. But one can almost hear the sighs of exasperation in police stations across the country as even the plods know that they will make little difference.

Politically, both Miss Widdecombe and Mr Straw are whetting public appetites that simply cannot be satisfied. The amazing feature of modern society is how we have even bought the suggestion that it is possible to go about our social and domestic business and yet expect the state to protect us from the yobs and petty criminals. The experience of history should tell us - and politicians should warn us - that what we currently face outside our high-street pubs is the historic norm that society, through state agencies, cannot usually control.

One day, both Miss Widdecombe and Mr Straw, or their successors, will recognise that their battle will be to face the public with historical reality. I suspect, in their hearts, they already know this - but first there is an election campaign, during which their battle for votes will depend on continuing to mislead the public.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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