It hardly fits the image, that when we get a real-life Charles Bronson vigilante, he's a farmer from Norfolk. If the Death Wish films had been based on him, he'd have been running through the New York subways yelling at robbers, "Calm you down. Or I'll shoot your ass I will, and that'll be a rum ol' do."
Now Hague, Widdecombe and Straw will battle to see who is toughest on crime, but none of them will make any difference.
If the answer to crime is tougher laws, how does that explain America, where two million people are held in privately run prisons, and convicts are wasted almost daily? Yet, if my research is accurate, the odd criminal incident still takes place from time to time. It must be because they're soft. What sort of deterrent is the electric chair or lethal injection if it's in a nice warm room? They should be beheaded in the street, as in Saudi Arabia. Though I'm sure in Saudi Arabia people still say there's too much crime because the government is soft on it and "some of these beheading places are like bloody holiday camps".
Any crime debate encourages lectures on how we've gone soft compared with in the Fifties. For example, there was the speech at the Conservative conference demanding that detention centres be set up for criminals, at which "everything should be done at the double", with "a maximum of hard work and a minimum of amusement. Over the past 25 years, through misguided sentiment, we have cast aside the word 'discipline'." The speech was, in fact, made by RA Butler in 1958.
The nostalgia of a rosy community spirit where you could leave your front door open and the neighbours would pop in and decorate the place is a myth. It was the time of switchblade fights and the Krays. So even they are romanticised as honourable criminals who always said, "I'm going to drill your kneecaps, sir." In 30 years' time people will talk about the good old days when we had decent criminals like Yardies and Chinese Triads, "not like these thugs we've got today".
Similarly, the argument that crime is caused by the influence of television contains a nagging flaw. Television has been around for, at the most, 50 years. And crime, I think you'll find, was going on before that. What was the cause of highwaymen? Maybe travelling troubadours were wandering into villages and performing scenes from The Sweeney.
All the evidence shows that prison creates, rather than cures criminality. When a judge passes sentence, in effect he's saying, "You are a common thief. So I must sentence you to sit in a cell 23 hours a day with a man who's an expert in the field of common thieving. Then you'll be released back into society with no money, no job and no prospects. That ought to stop you from thinking of stealing again."
Most petty criminals are pathetic, and the lifestyle could only appeal to someone who was powerless and poor and had nothing to look forward to. So the law makes virtually no difference at all.
The reason most of us don't break into our neighbour's car and steal the radio is because a) it would be considered un-neighbourly, and b) it wouldn't be economically worthwhile. Just as the reason most of us don't murder each other is because we're aware it would spoil someone's day, rather than because it is illegal. If murder became legal, we wouldn't all start stabbing strangers just to see what it was like. The more grisly the crime, the less of a role the law has. No psycho, just as he's about to put someone's head in a fridge, stops for a moment and thinks, "Oh, hang on - I hope this isn't against the law."
One of the remarkable things about our society is not how many people go out thieving but how few do. Despite all the claims that "you've got to be so careful these days", and advice to buy alarms, booby traps, drawbridges and moats, most people go out of their way not to rob you. If you leave a bag in a pub or shop, the chances are that it will still be there when you go back. If you drop your credit card and someone sees it, they will probably call after you. And if you forget to lock your car, it almost certainly won't be stolen. Because most of the people who steal cars are car thieves. And they will steal it whether it's locked or not. If it's unlocked, you won't get a hairdresser or accountant walking past and thinking to themselves, "Well, I'm not usually a car thief, but seeing as that one's unlocked, I'm going to climb in, hotwire it, respray it, sell it to a bloke in Germany and make myself a monkey."
For the past hundred years, whenever unemployment, poverty and despair have risen, so has crime. When they have fallen, so has crime. The politicians who bang on about law and order do not seem to care, as long as they can appear tough. And that's the trouble with Hague, Straw, and Widdecombe - they're soft on crime.