Politics, not society, is broken

25th July 2008 at 01:00

The latest panic about knife crime is interesting to observe, as we move from the occasional news story to saturation coverage - front page protestations by newspapers, police pronouncements that knife crime is now more of a problem than terrorism, political proposals and counter proposals. Clearly, "something must be done".

We have had previous panics about violent crime from the Victorian anxiety about garrotting, the Sixties Mods and Rockers seaside fights and the Seventies mugging scare.

Each of these "panics" is useful to note and examine, not least of all to give a sense of perspective about street violence and the occasional knee-jerk reactions to it through much of modern history.

Today's knife panic is unquestionably a panic. That does not mean there are no killings taking place, but it does mean that the relatively small increase in youth knife deaths (19 so far in London, compared to 26 for the whole of 2007) should not be understood or described as an "epidemic" or a "national crisis". The figures for 2007 were up by 9 from the previous year - but then the 1997 figure was the same as the 2007 figure of young knife deaths. And overall, the homicide rate is so low in the UK that it is one of the safest places to live in the world.

Ironically, the alarm itself may actually have the unintended consequence of increasing fear among young people, encouraging the idea that knives are being used everywhere and leading to more carrying and potential use of them. This is something that occurred with the garrotting panic, where an incident was recorded of a frightened pedestrian viciously attacking a man he thought was following him when he was simply walking home.

Today's concern about youth crime does seem different to past panics. First, there are few voices challenging the panic - at least within politics - as each party tries to out-tough the other.

Second, despite the recent talk of liberty in politics, the idea of liberty is in reality largely non-existent in UK politics. To suggest, for example, that simply carrying a knife should not be a crime, something that would have been said and thought by many a few decades ago, today sounds like madness.

Finally, what is different today is the more generalised sense of fear and unease in society as a whole. This, in part, with the great assistance of politicians, has helped "panics" about youth crime to be ever-present for the past 15 years.

The knife crime discussion is not really about knives as such, but about our (and especially politicians') sense that society is out of control - or, as Tory leader David Cameron recently argued, that society is "broken". So we have gone from a little-discussed issue a few months ago to one which has become "bigger than terrorism".

Thankfully, very few young people are being killed by knives - and society, despite its many problems, is far from "broken". What is broken, in fact, is politics, politics with a social vision and politics with a belief in people and the importance of our liberty. Politics, in other words, which has the capacity to put social problems into perspective without panicking.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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