McTernan on politics

It’s the decline of deference, stupid. That was a predominant theme
in the media coverage of the Home Office white paper Respect and
Responsibility. If only young people were more polite, didn’t barge
ahead of us in bus queues and stopped listening to that weird music
and wearing those strange clothes. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

There was however, in a lot of discussion, a nostalgic hankering
for a Dixon of Dock Green golden age when children played freely on
the streets and a clip on the ear put a young tearaway back on the
straight and narrow. It is all very odd. The official crime figures
quoted by the Home Office in the White Paper show that crime is
falling. This in itself is not surprising given that unemployment
has been falling and we know that a job is the best anti-crime
policy. Yet the British Crime Survey shows the fear of crime has
not declined to anything like the same extent.

Home secretary David Blunkett’s response is not to confront
perceptions with reality but to propose that what is needed is more
action. And he has produced an odd cocktail of proposals – one part
evidence-based policy, one part saloon bar analysis and one part
eye-catching but ineffective strategies.

There is a risk that parts of the white paper will stoke public
fears rather than assuage them. Any chief constable will tell you
that the press probably has a bigger impact on perceptions of
safety than any amount of copper-ing. Yet in a telling passage the
white paper practically dismisses this as an area demanding
government response: “Whilst the media coverage of disturbing
crimes can fuel the fear of crime, the real experience of
antisocial behaviour and disorder makes many even more afraid of
crime.” Blunkett recently spoke glowingly of Daily Mail editor,
Paul Dacre. But any detached analysis would surely identify the
Mail as a far greater contributor to public fear than any
disrespectful yobs.

This takes us to one of the greatest weaknesses of the government’s
strategies. There is little indication of an appetite to confront
the most deep-seated problems and the forces that produce them. No
minister will confront the tabloid press for fear of being
“monstered” as the former education secretary, Estelle Morris, was.

Equally, although alcohol fuels more crime, disorder and antisocial
behaviour than any other single factor, there are no real proposals
to challenge the might of Big Alcohol – the pubs, brewers and
distillers are just too powerful. Easier to fine the feckless
parent and demonise the young.

Surely in the long run the fundamentals will have to be addressed.
Perhaps it is time to get tough on the causes of crime.

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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