Hold on to your hats: Nick Ross's book on crime is actually not bad

There’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too, Alan White finds.

Crime: How To Solve It, and Why So Much of What We're Told Is Wrong
Nick Ross
Biteback Publishing, 361pp, 17.99

What with the best part of 30 years presenting Crimewatch and other programmes on the subject, seats on Government committees and even the setting up of an institution dedicated to its prevention, Nick Ross has thought a lot about crime. Not necessarily a recommendation, but what we can say for a start is that there is a lot of stuff in this book. Ross has read up and has plenty to say on every type of crime, from firearm homicides to illegal downloads to - we’ll get there in the end - rape.

In one interview he revealed that the book suffered heavy edits, which makes me wonder how big a work was originally submitted to his publisher: it weighs in at 361 pages and is so heavily referenced that notes are not included in the text: instead you have to type in phrases from the book at in order to find the source. Perhaps I’m a dinosaur, but I found this somewhat annoying.

Anyway: in terms of scope, this may be the most wide-ranging book on crime ever published. But the central conceit that runs through it is very simple: prevention is better than cure. Or as Ross neatly puts it early on: “Crime has been with us since Adam and Eve and, surprisingly, God didn’t spot the solution. Rather than punishing the miscreants, it might have been better had he put the forbidden fruit higher up the tree.”

Now how willing you are to accept this rather depends on your perception of human nature. Perhaps you agree, or perhaps you think if God had done that then Adam and Eve would only have ended up crapping on the rhododendrons or something. In which case Ross’s aim is to win you over.

His thinking is rather less original than he or his publishers suggest. The last policing minister Nick Herbert was talking about the need for preventative justice as recently as 2010, and as it happens I dedicated most of a chapter of my own book to it in 2008, having been inspired by this 2003 report into a chief constable who nearly lost his job after mediating between two gangs, thus causing arrest figures to go down and panic at the Home Office. I’d love to believe my trailblazing ideas have a huge impact on the thinking of cabinet ministers, but the truth is there have long been debates on this issue. 

What Ross brings to the table is a vision in which prevention can eventually supplant detection. The rub for policy makers, of course, is that while we wait for this promised land to appear the police won’t be able to find out who stole your bike because they’re giving classes on securing them safely. It's not a concern for which he dedicates much time. However, it has to be said that he makes a good fist of arguing for prevention for much of the book. He has an eye for a telling historical anecdote, deftly running through the history of burglary and shoplifting in the Twentieth Century and arguing cogently how the huge decline in both crimes were influenced by social changes that simply made them harder to commit. 

And he’s very good on the fog of bullshit that wafts up from the interface between politicians, the media and the criminal justice system whenever we talk about crime. There are a number of uncomfortable truths that the public just don’t want to hear. First, as the criminologist Thomas Gabor says: “Dividing all of humanity into two camps - the decent and the villainous - is at odds with the facts.” Ross draws on everything from the Milgram experiment to recent political scandals to show that people are susceptible to temptation: crime is opportunistic, and it’s little more than an accident of birth as to whether you end up a street mugger or an investment banker fiddling the books.

Another truth we don’t want to accept is how the criminal justice system (CJS) amounts to little more than an elaborate confidence trick. It’s arbitrary as to whether a case makes court and produces a guilty verdict. It doesn’t reform criminals. It doesn’t take them out of circulation for very long. And it doesn’t put them off committing crime again.

Of course the police should be spending more time stopping crimes before they happen - they’re the best placed to do so - but instead they spend their time responding to crimes and filling out paperwork in order to placate the legal system. It costs millions, but this entire system has been gradually erected with barely a shred of statistical evidence to validate its efficacy. Many of Ross’s arguments on this have been heard before, generally from the ‘“left” - but as he points out, this shouldn’t really be political at all: it’s an issue of pragmatism.

So there’s a lot that’s right in this book, but there are some deep flaws too. First of all, there’s the issue of methodology. Ross wants criminology to be less of a humanities subject and more of a science, and writes well on the way it’s been infiltrated by various political doctrines. He also deconstructs the ludicrous way in which the media reports crime, and he analyses how unreliable crime statistics are to great effect. But then he uses all three as the primary sources for his arguments. When you’re just sharing an opinion rather than reporting, you’ve got nowhere else to go.

He may not like criminology, but I’d contrast his technique with, for example, this piece of research into gangs in Waltham Forest. It, too, is flawed, but here we have first-hand testimony from gang members, probation workers and locals, maps of the gangs’ whereabouts, and general conclusions extrapolated from the interviews. And one thing you see a lot of in that report is the necessary interaction between police, schools, probation, housing officers and other bodies: utterly vital to a modern justice system, yet something on which Ross has little to say.

The report's conclusions may be wrong, and what the individuals might say may well only be subjectively true, but the truth is you can cut statistics and news reports as easily as you can interviewees’ words. Bluntly, you’re more likely to make a significant contribution to knowledge by concentrating on a single type of crime in a small area than by holding forth for a few thousand words on, to pick a chapter, “violence”.

So there's a pot/kettle element to his complaints about the selective use of evidence by various institutions. Ross is convinced that the “design” of estates can be a major preventative tool, and cites the Pepys Estate in Deptford as an example: with high-rise stairways removed, there has been “no crime”. Except: a) His only reference for this turns out to be, um, a documentary he filmed, b) There’s certainly some crime, and c) The forerunner of this kind of idea was the Mozart Estate in Westminster, which was completely redesigned by Alice Coleman, after which drugs raids, gang shootings and other social problems resolutely refused to go away. 

The other issue is that his method leaves major analytical gaps and unanswered questions. It's all very well to bemoan the "austere dichotomy" of innocent or guilty verdicts in court, but then you have to wonder what the alternative is. Probably guilty, but six months off for a sharp suit and a plausible manner?

Likewise Ross's analysis of statistics shows, he feels, that ethnic minorities aren’t unfairly treated by the CJS, but he’s unwilling to say whether over-representation is because they live in rougher areas or because of different “cultural values”. I have an opinion, based on a year researching different-coloured youths in housing estates everywhere from Brixton to Grimsby and seeing very similar patterns of behaviour - but it’s just a gut feeling based on talking to lots of people.

I get the impression that this view is of little use to Ross because it just isn’t scientific enough. That would be fine, but his own book does little to convince us that the analysis of crime can ever be an exact science. His efforts to do so, along with the fact he’s determined to write on every crime under the sun, also lead to some rather jarring clashes of tone. You can see where we’re going with this.

To the issue of rape, then. First, we should note the entire chapter is now available online: I invite the reader to draw their own conclusions, but here are mine. Ross certainly doesn’t say, “Not all rape is rape.” Those words were the invention of an excitable sub-editor. And the edited extract that appeared in the Mail did divest the argument of much of its nuance. Indeed, it’s only fair to see the chapter in the context of the book I’ve described above: a book almost entirely about stopping crime before it happens. I imagine these are the lines he would describe as key:

“Of course she was right that ‘no means no’, which is fine as a finger-wagging exercise, but being justifiably indignant is not the same as being prudent or pragmatic.”

One can sympathise with Ross - up to a point. There’s the kernel of a difficult debate with some very fine gradations here - when offering safety advice, when is the line crossed between promoting caution and victim blaming? Don’t take an illegal taxi? Don’t walk home alone drunk? Don’t wear high heels? The line “rape is rape” just doesn’t settle this. For more on this see here. But the problem is that Ross over-reaches. A lot:

“We have come to acknowledge that it is foolish to leave laptops on the back seat of a car...Yet for some it is heresy to suggest victims should ever be held responsible at all.”

It’s only by reading the rest of the book that you can understand how he’s ended up expressing these crass sentiments - it’s part of his work-in-progress to turn all criminal behaviour into a kind of mathematical equation (indeed he jokingly attempts this at one point). Laptop theft may, like rape, be expedited by various factors, but the simple fact is that everything else surrounding the crime from motive to victim impact is totally different. If we talk about it differently, it's not just out of respect to victims.

I feel sorry for Ross - he’s clearly a decent man who’s on a mission to do some good, and by all accounts he’s deeply upset by the reaction. But he really shouldn’t be surprised. His subsequent pronouncements on child pornography have only made things worse: all a little reminiscent of the middle-aged Harry Enfield character trying to come to terms with his gay son. It’s what happens when writers think too much, and don’t listen enough. In all fairness, the chapter on rape is an anomaly. The dull truth is that this is largely a comprehensive and thoughtful book.

Nick Ross subscribes to the idea that when it comes to crime, prevention is better than cure. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.