What's all the panic about?

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Lurid headlines about a growing gun culture have exaggerated the problem of violent youth. But that is nothing new, says Stuart Waiton

Just as Glasgow apparently has a knife culture, areas of Birmingham have a gun culture. But before we go hiding behind our desks, searching for the alarm button as wee Johnny approaches us with a strange bulge in his pocket, a few questions need to be asked about the latest panic over the "culture" of violent youth.

While there has been an increase in gun-related crime it is worth noting that the homicide rate in the latest statistics has increased by only 1 per cent. It is also worth noting, at a time when some groups of young people are being depicted as somehow under the influence of a culture of violence, that the group least at risk of being murdered by a gun are young people between the ages of five and 16 years.

In the west of Scotland, where we often hear reports of an increase in violent youth crime, it is worth noting that these figures are almost exclusively linked to the number of knives found due to increased stop and search operations by Strathclyde Police. Panic headlines - often backed up by teacher unions warning their members to be ever more vigilant - have led to yet more harassment of young people by the police and an increased fear of young people.

Youth panics were once the preserve of the moral right. In the 1960s, bank holiday brawls by Mods and Rockers grabbed the news. MPs and even the Home Secretary (David Blunkett take note) tried to calm things down and questioned the "exaggerated" nature of the reports. Many educationists even talked not of the problem of youth, but of society letting young people down.

The elderly, often the group most prone to moral panics, hark back to the good old days before the war. Yet, in the 1920s there was a 70 per cent increase in shop raids, often by young people, largely because of the emergence of the motor car as a new form of getaway.

Robert Baden-Powell (creator of the Scouts) described this development as "a rather promising sign as it showed there was still a spirit of adventure amongst the young". Similarly, many in the influential progressive education movement criticised the dullness of conformity and went as far as to describe boys' mischief in school as good-natured fun.

The positive way that young people were seen in the past was an expression of the sense of social progress that was felt by youth leaders, education leaders and politicians at the time. Before the war, Baden-Powell believed he could build a Scout movement loyal to both King and Country. With the postwar boom came the swinging sixties, a time when politicians felt that we had "never had it so good". Today, at a time of relative social calm and low unemployment, Tony Blair's new year message might as well have said "we've never had it so bad".

It is this loss of leadership and sense of impending doom that helps explain the constant exaggeration of the problem of violent youth.

"Education, education, education" was Blair's rallying cry in 1997. Yet compared to the 1920s the 1960s or just about any time in the past century, the belief in education and knowledge as a force for progress and change has never been so low.

The exaggerated sense of alternative "cultures", whether knife or gun, in this respect is less an expression of young people out of control than of the loss of belief the present Government has in the "mainstream culture" that it is responsible for.

Stuart Waiton is author of "Scared of the Kids?"

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