Jack McConnell has made clear his big idea for the Scottish elections next year is law and order . If so, prepare for an SNP-LibDem coalition, for the war on crime is going about as badly right now as Tony Blair’s war on terror.
Crime is down overall, largely due to economic growth, but in the specific areas targeted by the First Minister’s five-year anti-crime drive – youth, drugs, knives, child abuse – the numbers all appear to be going the wrong way.
Just look at last week’s press. Knife crime is up, we are told, and stabbings actually increased during the recent UK-wide amnesty. Drug abuse is at epidemic proportions in Scotland, with one in eight babies being born with illegal drugs in their bloodstream. Scotland’s “drugs tsar”, Tom Wood, the former chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, declared that the war had been lost.
It also emerged last week that half of all prisoners released from Scottish jails are back inside within two years, and nearly two-thirds of youth criminals re-offend within the same period. The “ned” culture, which Labour promised to end, has flourished. The Children’s Hearing system is being swamped by tens of thousands of referrals.
In desperation, McConnell has taken to attacking the police and local authorities. Last month, he said councils were “doing a disservice” by failing to use Asbos. Last week he said it was “inexcusable” that only four of the country’s eight police forces had used dispersal orders, designed to prevent young people ganging up on the streets. The councils and the police said they weren’t aware of any “correct number” of orders, adding that there was a 60% increase in Asbos in 2005. So, sucks, Jack.
McConnell’s frustration is understandable. There are more police than ever; longer sentences than ever; more people in jail than ever; more anti-drug programmes; more people on paedophile and child abuse registers. The police have Asbos, closure orders, dispersal orders . But despite all McConnell’s efforts, people still think the government isn’t doing enough. Why?
Well, one possible reason is the phenomenon of crime inflation. The FM’s measures may affect real crime, but public perceptions of crime are another matter. Crime sells newspapers and with falling circulations, editors are desperate to keep readers attention. The pages of tabloids are filled day after day with stories of stabbings, beatings, gangs, illegal immigrants; terrorists on the loose; prisoners being let out of jail early; paedophiles at loose in the community and murderers being given derisory sentences by liberal judges.
It’s hardly surprising we’re are in a state of fear. A couple of people are beaten up, allegedly for supporting England in the World Cup, and you’d think that a racial war had broken out in the UK. Society is presented as saturated by lawlessness because it is a way of connecting emotionally with people. Saying crime is down doesn’t sell the evening rag.
I’m not saying all crime is a fiction made up by the media. But “if it bleeds, it leads” is the old newsroom adage. Newspapers don’t do “proportionate”. IT was ever thus.
But what happened in the early years of the new century is that the Left started trying to surf this crime panic. Finding that social justice, economic growth and working-class solidarity were no longer enough to motivate Labour’s traditional vote, the party turned from class politics to street politics. It embraced the law and order postures that used to be so successful for the Tories in working class constituencies such as Cathcart.
Now, there’s no doubt this is what many voters want – politicians testify to the sense of panic on the doorsteps. Crime hits those at the bottom of the social scale in run-down council estates far more harshly than the middle classes in leafy suburbs. Former left-wing Labour MSPs, such as Johann “hammer of the neds” Lamont of Glasgow Pollok, are only reflecting the concerns of electorate.
But while you develop policies for the crime wave, it is very difficult to do anything about the media wave. You can’t lock up editors. They will continue to report, in pornographic detail, every evil and misfortune to hit ordinary people in their areas, and their readers will want something done about it.
Moreover, cracking down on crime is all very well, but there is also the question of justice. The police simply can’t go around slapping dispersal orders on every young person on a city street corner on a Saturday night if they are doing nothing wrong. Yet many local people now regard the very presence of groups of young people as a threat.
And yes, the police could be doing more, by just being there. There’s nothing like a bobby on the beat to make people feel secure. But the police say they are up to their eyes in paperwork, thanks to Executive policies.
Last week, McConnell attacked the police for inundating the Children’s Hearings system with spurious cases. These were not offenders, but children at risk of abuse in the family home. However, this is a result of McConnell’s own campaign to protect children, launched after the death of baby Caleb Ness at the hands of his violent father in 2001. He called for all the agencies to take greater care of children in homes with violent or drug-taking adults. The result was that officials now automatically refer such children.
Those who live by the tabloid, die by the tabloid. The FM is sincere in his concern about crime, but he is fighting a phantom, and the phantom is winning.