Thankfully, it is not necessary to understand the underlying reason for the latest fall in crime to welcome it and, indeed, be relieved by it. It is part of a longer trend right across the developed world, and an established reversal of the rise that began from the 1960s until around the turn of the millennium. In its way, the reduction in crime represents the greatest single improvement in the standard of living of the British people over the last few recession-hit years. It is also a boon for ministers who would love to claim credit for it.
We should certainly be wary of the explanations politicians offer for trends in criminality. In the 1980s, when it was on the rise, Margaret Thatcher attributed it to the spread of wealth her policies had brought about. As people were able to afford such expensive wonders as VCR machines, microwave ovens and hot hatches, it was argued, these became the target for thieves. Well, we have more mobile and stealable gadgets than ever before now, but the tablet and smartphone revolution has not done much to boost crime.
Some of the explanation is uncontroversial. Cars are more difficult to steal than in the days of a simple hot-wiring, so much so that the only way is to grab the keys, which often means a break-in. That is trickier because of more burglar alarms and greater awareness of the need for locked windows. Crime overall is also more difficult to commit because of the ubiquity of CCTV. The police have the kit that can nab more villains, from DNA testing to infra-red cameras that can detect cannabis farms. The decline in cash wage packets has meant fewer Sweeney-style “blags”. Cybercrime and fraud are obviously higher, but generally do not involve a sawn-off shotgun. Even murder is down.
The increase in sexual offences can be partly explained by the publicity around Jimmy Savile and similar cases, and is in fact welcome if it means more people come forward as victims. The striking thing about those scandals is that in fact they seem to have been rooted firmly in an older world where child abuse was, clearly, easier to get away with.
At any rate it is difficult to see how the policies pursued by home secretaries from Jack Straw to Theresa May have made much impact. Asbos, for example, were far less used than talked about, and antisocial behaviour has been falling since they were dropped.
This was not supposed to happen. Early in the recession Home Office officials warned that unemployment would turn idle hands to the devil’s work, and cuts in policing would make detection more difficult. None of the dire predictions has come true. According to elements of the press, decent hard-working people (as the usual formulation runs) should, by now, be drowning in a sea of evil-doing perpetrated by East European immigrants, drug-crazed vagrants and binge drinkers. This Mad Max vision of Britain has not materialised, though you would never think it from the headline writers, who remain on their daily mission to scare the hell out of Middle England. “Something need not be done” is not a great slogan; but in the case of crime, this is the one social problem we should worry rather less about.