Leading Article: A slur on the quality of British criminals

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IT IS unquestionably one of the police's responsibilities to alert the public to all known threats to its safety, if necessary by chilling its collective blood. That duty was amply fulfilled by this week's conference at the police staff college at Bramshill, Hampshire. On day one, east European crime syndicates were tipped to emerge as the largest suppliers of drugs and illegal guns within five years. 'Their trafficking activities and kits of drugs and weapons will be the equivalent of the current problems posed by the Triads, Mafia and Colombians combined', Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Veness warned.

A grim enough prospect. But there was worse to come on day two, when Hell's Angels were credited with the fastest-growing organised crime network in the world. In 40 years, according to a Canadian detective, they have achieved in the United States 'what it took the Cosa Nostra 80 years to do.' A British detective reckoned the Angels could be involved in more killings and woundings than all other organised crime gangs in Britain put together.

Since the title of the conference was 'Organised Crime: A Threat Assessment', and its own organisers were the recently formed National Criminal Intelligence Service, it would perhaps be unduly cynical to accuse the policemen of building up threats in order to justify their own existence. But their warnings must have aroused a strong sense of deja vu across the country. In recent years, after all, Britain has been braced successively for the horrors of the Chinese Triads, fresh from Hong Kong; the ruthlessness of the Jamaican-based Yardies; the power of the Japanese yakuza, not to mention its white-collar branch, the sokaiya; the limitless and evil wealth of Colombia's drug barons; and, inevitably, the long arm of the Mafia.

No doubt all these groups have committed unspeakable crimes in this country, even if, in many cases, against rival gangs. No doubt we should be updating our view of Hell's Angels, still widely imagined to be relatively harmless bikers with a questionable penchant for studded leather outfits. And no doubt, too, the press colludes with the police in building up the latest threat to life and and property: when a Hong Kong policeman actually played down the danger of an influx of Triads after the Chinese takeover of the colony in 1997, his assurance received scant coverage.

All these warnings of external threats must be doing terrible things to the pride of honest-to-goodness British criminals. Where, they must be wondering in south London, in Manchester's Moss Side and in inner Glasgow, do they rate us? What has happened to the traditions of the Kray brothers, of Jack 'the hat' McVitie and Jack Spot? Clearly it is not just the treaties of Rome and Maastricht that are eroding the sovereignty of the sceptred isle.