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6 March 2019

First Thoughts: The causes of knife crime and Margaret Thatcher’s missing museum

Police officers are calling for the return of stop-and-search after knife crime reaches an all-time high.

By Peter Wilby

The rise in knife crime has led to demands from police officers, supported by some Tory MPs, for a revival of stop-and-search. “Stop-and-search is at an all-time low and knife crime is at an all-time high,” said Stu Berry, chairman of the Manchester Police Federation, after the fatal stabbing of an A-level pupil at the private Manchester Grammar School (MGS). “This cause and effect isn’t difficult to understand.”

If only it were so simple. As most MGS A-level pupils will know, cause and effect cannot be deduced from a statistical correlation. But the correlation doesn’t exist anyway. Knife murders last surged in the early 2000s and peaked in 2006-07. Stop-and-search peaked in 2008-09. From that year, both stop-and-search and knife killings were at significantly lower levels than they were in the 2000s until a sudden surge in the latter in 2017-18. Labour MPs would prefer to blame Tory austerity policies and cuts in police numbers. But the statistical trends obviously don’t support that school of thought either.

Why do we focus on knives anyway? True, they’re the largest single method of homicide, accounting for between a third and a half of the total. But while grieving for every one of the 285 mostly young people who lost their lives to knife attacks in the year ending March 2018, we could note that murders by blunt instruments are at the lowest ever recorded and that 29 people were shot dead in the same period against 96 in 2001-02.

Conservation project

The Tories’ incompetence isn’t, it seems, confined to their performance in government. They cannot even organise a memorial to their greatest hero since Churchill. A Margaret Thatcher Centre, containing documents and exhibits related to her life, was due to open this year on the 40th anniversary of her entry to Downing Street.

Not a brick has been laid, the Times reports, though the centre has a website that promises “state-of-the-art technology” giving visitors “a first-rate educational experience that will put learning quite literally into their own hands”. You can take out “premium membership” at £180 a year. But I don’t advise rushing to do so. All the centre has done so far is hold lectures by the likes of Liam Fox and David Davis, and organise transatlantic student exchanges designed, the Times alleges, to encourage support for “right-wing beliefs”.

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Nearly a third of the money donated in the UK up to 2016, the latest year for which accounts are available, has apparently gone on “consultants”. (The centre describes the Times’s reports as “misleading” and “discreditable”.)

But the idea, modelled on US presidential libraries and museums, was surely unBritish in the first place. Every president since Herbert Hoover (1929-33) has such a memorial in his home state, administered by a federal government agency. The US president is head of state – a democratically elected equivalent of our monarch – and sometimes isn’t, in the strict sense, a party politician.

More often than not, he leaves the White House with dignity after the maximum eight years whereas our prime ministers must usually be dragged from Downing Street either by their own MPs or the voters. Building expensive memorials reflects the deference that Americans accord even to their worst presidents.

Though Edward Heath has a sort of museum at his old home in Cathedral Close, Salisbury, and you can travel to the Scilly Isles to see Harold Wilson’s pipe and Gannex mac, we have no Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan or Tony Blair centres. We don’t allow our politicians to get above themselves even after we’ve buried them.

Leaving quietly

Talking of US presidents relinquishing office with dignity, will Donald Trump do so? His former lawyer Michael Cohen suggests he won’t leave quietly if defeated in 2020. Democrats are compiling evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing. If they are too successful, he could calculate that once he no longer enjoys some degree of presidential immunity, he could wind up in jail. Fear of being locked up or possibly killed if they lose power explains why the likes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Cameroon’s Paul Biya and perhaps Venezuela’s Nicolas Máduro cling so tenaciously to office. How shameful that America now has a president who prompts such comparisons.

Mail bias

Since Paul Dacre’s departure, his successor Geordie Greig has given the Daily Mail a less hysterical tone, particularly on Brexit, but some things never change. I have observed in the past that the Mail’s “soft” feature sections – on style, health and money – are illustrated almost entirely by white faces and white bodies.

I have just done another week-long check. Monday’s Inspire section. Pictures of whites: 31. Pictures of non-whites: 0.  Thursday’s Femail section. Pictures of whites: 50. Pictures of non-whites: 1 (possibly, she may just have a dark complexion). I also checked the Tuesday health, Wednesday money and Friday arts and books sections. They didn’t have any pictures of black or brown people either. In the Mail’s world, non-whites don’t get ill, don’t have money, don’t appear in films or write books, and never wear the latest fashions.

Cheek of it

Members of the Independent Group of MPs reportedly went for “a cheeky Nando’s” soon after their launch. I fear standards are slipping among Labour party defectors. After launching the SDP in 1981, its founders lunched every Monday at L’Amico, an upmarket Italian restaurant near the Houses of Parliament, no doubt led by Roy Jenkins, a noted connoisseur of good food and fine wine. I do not know what they ate, but I doubt any of them would have ordered a sunset burger as Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes reportedly did.

This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash