In 2008 I finished a book about street gangs, called One Blood. I’d spent the best part of two years trudging around the country, interviewing people in gangs, council officals, voluntary sector workers, housing officers, teachers and the like.
Not surprisingly, the best insights came from off-record interviews with policemen. One of the most interesting was with a man who was coming to the end of his career with the Met Police and had seen and done it all. His working life had been a non-stop parade of violent domestics, the mentally ill and drug users, and of course, young gang members.
I remember talking to him about the life circumstances of a teenage boy I’d interviewed a couple of days before. He’d recently done time for a street robbery. His father was a violent alcoholic, and he’d been re-housed with family members. He’d been booted out of school and it seemed like no one — not his family or the local authority — had made much effort to get him back into education. Did this policeman feel any sympathy for people like him?
“Sort of. But then he’s a real little shit.”
Then he said something that rather surprised me.
“Middle England…they can close their ears to this problem. But wait till it lands on their doorstep. Then you’ll hear them scream. Then you’ll hear them scream alright.”
It seemed an odd, faintly hysterical thing to say, especially in the context of the black and white, cops and robbers picture he’d painted for most of the interview. Three years later, in August 2011, he was proved exactly right.
His remarks should be put in context. He didn’t quite foresee the violence of the riots. What he was talking about was the steady growth of inner city crime operations as they expanded out to the suburbs. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that this is on the rise. During the time I was researching my book I heard about Liverpudlian dealers in Margate, dealers from Peckham operating in Cardiff, and Hackney dealers in Essex.
In the light of this — and the riots — we need to talk seriously about crime. Which we haven’t, ever. It’s been shrouded in screaming headlines, soundbites and political quick fixes. There’s a simple reason for this: until recently, crime hasn’t actually mattered to most of us.
The situation we find ourselves in has been coming since the 1980s, when the gap between rich and poor reached a level not seen since World War Two, due to a drive to choke inflation out of the economy with high interest rates. All this joblessness would create crime: and indeed police figures show a steady increase in the amount of crime committed since the 1980s. But here’s the odd thing: it didn’t really impact on the majority. The reason is the manner in which the poorest ended up living. Between 1980 and 2000 poor, rich and average households became less and less likely to live together, as the social housing stock depleted and the most successful tenants bought their properties and moved on through Right to Buy and Tenant Incentive Schemes.
Where once social housing had been a respectable place to live, it soon became synonymous with the many problems of new tenants: mental illness, drug dependency, and poverty. These problems were self-perpetuating: poor academic performance bred poverty, which bred poor academic performance. And above all, they created crime.
And the horrific truth that our politicians have kept scandalously quiet about is that this crime was both committed and suffered by the same people. By 1992, the chances of a resident in the lowest crime neighbourhood being assaulted were barely measurable. Residents in the highest crime neighbourhoods, by contrast, risked being assaulted twice a year. They also experienced twice the rate of property crime and four times the rate of personal crime than those in the next worst category. Communities were tearing themselves apart.
Here’s an ex-gang member I interviewed in 2007:
Why are the young kids dying all of a sudden? Because now there are 25-year-olds who have grown up their entire life being robbed and full of resentment . . . the first generation of adults who’ve lived their entire lives in this culture. And this is the first generation of kids who’ve not only lived it — they were born into it.
What this breeds is a number of things — resentment for those who aren’t forced to live in perpetual fear, hypermasculinity, disorder, and a detachment from the mainstream that means all authority figures (the riots were not just about stop and searches) are seen as antagonists. Gangs and riots are about capital – in the first instance, consumer capital – the hope of making money or looting things. But they’re also about social capital – for gangs, instilling respect or fear in others; for rioters, lashing out at the perceived injustice of wealthy, content mainstream society, or the unfair authorities.
Above all, it breeds insularity and territorialism. Here’s a normal, non gang-involved girl from Bromley, talking to me in 2008:
It affects my whole life. I had to choose my Sixth Form College on the basis of where I come from. Only last week a bunch of boys asked me where I went to school. They asked me where I went to school . . . then they started spitting at me and telling me they were going to rob me . . . and adults don’t listen: as far as they’re concerned, we’re all a menace.
None of this is particularly surprising. What is, however, is the extent to which, while these problems have developed, there has been a collective shrugging of shoulders by the political elite in Whitehall. And it doesn’t just extend to politicians. Michael Howard told a revealing story in a 2011 BBC 4 documentary:
I was shown charts which showed crime rising inexorably and the officials actually said to me: ‘It is going to continue to go up and the first thing, Home Secretary, that you have to understand is that there is nothing you can do about it.’
The management of crime has become as much about managing perception as it has anything else. In political terms, it makes sense: how many votes are there to be won on sink estates? Indeed it made sense for the rhetoric of New Labour to portray violent crime as purely a criminal justice issue. Tony Blair saw violent gang members as a small minority, estranged from the community in which they live. At the same time, he saw the 9/11 bombers as inhabiting the far end of a wide spectrum of extremism. If anything, he got it the wrong way round. You see it in the mum telling the council social worker to fuck off; in the dad telling his son he should never snitch or bother going to school. These people aren’t rioters or even criminals – but they feel hugely distanced from mainstream society.
New Labour’s Home Secretaries were so punitive that three new super-prisons had to be built – and all the while the re-conviction rate for 18-21 year olds remained around 80 per cent. Long term solutions were jettisoned in favour of quick fix, headline-generating initiatives. In 2007, when gang paranoia was at its height due to some vicious killings in South London, the police seemed to have arrested a “Mr Big” or called a “gang truce” between supposed “leaders” every other month.
Is it any wonder, then, that when mainstream society was confronted with violence and rage in 2011, it stood in shocked silence, and occasionally filmed it on a camera phone? So insulated from this unpleasant little world had it been, so inured to the folk devilry of drug overlords and postcode wars, that when it was confronted with the reality of violent crime – and more often than not it is little more than disorganised, snowballing urban machismo – all it could do was gawp in confusion and disbelief.
The riots taught even the most ostrich-like of us that something was up. What we have now is a slightly more nuanced position – Iain Duncan Smith with the carrot (health visitors, domestic violence assessments, a gangs “task force”) and Theresa May with the stick (strengthening weapons possession laws, including a mandatory custodial sentence for offenders caught carrying a knife etc). There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of it. But what we really need is a fundamental rethinking of our politics. And there is absolutely no better time in our history than right now.
When you look at the events of August 2011, it’s very hard to feel sympathy for those involved in the riots. Nor should we – it’s not contradictory to accept that they made reprehensible decisions at a personal level, while at the same time having been failed by wider society. I, too, made wrong choices as a teenager. But I grew up in middle class suburbs: my peers were occasionally smoking or taking drugs – if I got in a fight, I was unlikely to be stabbed or shot. I – like most of us – was insulated from any more serious wrongdoing.
The enclaves of violent crime within which most of us in our 20s and 30s are fortunate enough never to grow up are a product of decisions taken before our time. But here is the uncomfortable truth we must all accept if we are to change our politics: riots and gangs have far wider ramifications than burning buildings and a few shootings and stabbings. The murders and the smaller-scale mass disturbances in places like Lozells prior to 2011 might have seemed an entirely separate problem from those faced by wider society. In fact, they were warning beacons.
Let’s take one issue as an example: housing. If the increase in speculative purchases and corresponding fall in capital government spending during the latter half of the Twentieth Century meant that we ended up with a few ghettos, it could – at a push – be argued it was a price worth paying for the benefit of the upwardly mobile. But this would ignore the long term problems it created for today’s young. We all know how disproportionately expensive houses are for first time buyers, but the sheer impact is still incredible. In 1990, 43 per cent of home owners were aged between 25 and 34: the figure is now around 27 per cent. It would be a less serious problem if the rental market could provide any kind of value for money – but market rates haven’t kept costs down: young people are paying more and more for worse and worse quality housing.
Likewise, crime is only the most dramatic expression of the despicably high rates of youth unemployment in this country. Those that complain about the feckless poor now are often the same men who grew up in an era when it remained under 600,000. New Labour did little to reverse the trend started by Thatcher’s attempt to fight inflation through the free-market. Globalisation became both an excuse and a clarion call: it was seen as inevitable that the rise of corporations that could take their workers from anywhere meant this generation would face the obstacle course of short-term contracts, unpaid internships and low salaries. Gross Domestic Product might have risen, but wages didn’t. The Government’s answer was to use the benefits system to plug the gap.
As Ed Howker and Shiv Malik have powerfully argued in Jilted Generation, all this means the average young person struggles to grow up: “Adulthood encompasses…family, savings, community, realising ambitions and ideas, stability, even having children…We’re in the closing moments of that grand experiment played out on us by predecessors who started their work before we were ever born, who abolished the stop-go economy and gave us stop-go lives, who gave us a knowledge economy and then charged us for the knowledge, who removed all stability and wonder why we stumble.”
Their book was one of a glut of similar works which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis, including David Willetts’ The Pinch, Francis Beckett’s What did the Baby Boomers ever do for us? and Neil Boorman’s It’s All Their Fault. Many of these books were condemned by – I hesitate to say it – middle aged writers, who felt they amounted to little more than a simplistic call for inter-generational warfare. But by and large they were no such thing. Those of us a long way off retirement, who feel anger at the struggles we face today – we don’t blame our parents. After all, many of them were too busy helping us out financially to bankrupt the economy.
No, what most of this literature called for were governmental policies that focus on the long term. And the “long term” isn’t some nebulous call for Edmund Burke-style “eternal government”. It doesn’t just mean “leaving a legacy for the next generation.” It means everyone, here and now. Lack of affordable housing, for instance, means there are millions of adults who can’t afford to live near their elderly parents, so they place them in care. In turn those elderly people aren’t able to care for their grandchildren.
The problem is that focusing on the long term means political honesty – and in the wake of the financial crisis, that’s something which has been in short supply. Frustrated by the extent to which the global economy has neutered their ability to impact on society and bereft of central funds, the parties have huddled round the centre ground.
It’s taken until this month for Labour to concede it needs to show where it would make cuts. And while the Government has succeeded in keeping interest rates low, it seems to have saved its fiercest rhetoric for the likes of public sector union leaders and benefits claimants. It would not, by any stretch of the imagination, be political suicide to openly discuss the length of financial depression that our country faces. Instead we hear from Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the Commons Treasury Select Committee that long term economic plans are inconsistent, incoherent and irrelevant.
And what of our plans for dealing with the gangs? The riots have changed the terms of the debate. So first we invited Bill Bratton, the former chief of the LAPD, to share his ideas with us. Post-riots, we are starting to hear a more nuanced version of the ways we deal with crime, and Bratton’s the perfect poster boy. He embodies carrot and stick. I don’t dispute that a lot of what he says makes sense. But the bottom line is that he dealt with gangs in America. It’s a different dynamic there and – as he would later point out to much harrumphing from our politicians – it’s much worse. Never mind the fact that Los Angeles and Nottingham are really very different places – at heart this is a local problem. The gang situation in Liverpool is totally different to the one in Birmingham which is different to the one in London. For what it’s worth, the situation in Hackney is also very different to the one in, say, Mitcham.
Bratton has sensible things to say about police and community engagement but many of these ideas have been circulating think tanks and have even been implemented to a greater or lesser extent by some forces for years. It brings us back to Iain Duncan Smith’s carrot, and Theresa May’s stick. In terms of dealing with the gangs, the stick is all so much noise. Every Government knows – and long has known – that if you actually want to solve the problem in the long term, it’s the carrot that matters. And here the problem is simple: there’s nothing wrong with the proposals. It’s just that they’re a drop in the ocean.
One of the most disappointing things for people who are affected by the gangs problem is to be told the Government can solve it. They were told the problem could be solved in 2007. They were told it could be solved in 2008. All the while the voluntary sector does much of the real work, struggling for cash and held to nonsensical account by nonsensical funding procedures.
This is Britain in 2012. The political class manage expectations. And back in a scruffy little cafe next to a gang-plagued estate, no doubt another cynical old copper waits for the next timebomb to go off.
Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets @aljwhite.