Friday, 8 August 2008

Crime and the Politics of Fear

Stodge's Fifth Law of Politics states:

"If you frighten the electorate enough, they'll vote for anything"

Fear is a major motivator in politcs and political debate. Political parties use fear as a weapon to get their message across and unfortunately the first casualty of fear is rational debate. We have seen this on issues like immigration and the EU and now we see it on the economy and crime.

The ability of populist politicians to use fear has been enhanced by the modern news cycle and by the decision of most of the news media to follow the populist line. The fearful buy newspapers so let's make sure their newspapers have a daily dose of fear. An integral element of David Cameron's Coalition is fear - he might not want it or wish it but he uses fear as a political tool because he is a populist trying to get people's votes.

Out canvassing you soon find fear - it's everywhere. In Henley, the fear was economic - people were frightened of falling house prices, rising inflation, job insecurity etc, etc. Not so long ago, the fear was immigration - we were being "swamped" apparently with the sinister undertone that immigration would destroy British culture and with a particular emphasis on the "threat" of Muslim immigration "because they're all bombers who want to blow us up" - yes, I've heard that on the doorstep too.

Crime, or more accurately, law and order, has become the latest issue where rational discourse has been replaced by the politics of fear. For many, the "streets" are filled with gangs of yobs who would beat you up or kill you if you as much as looked at them - "look at that poor woman pushed on to the railway at Faversham or that man murdered in Cornwall - we've got to deal with these yobs. Lock 'em up I say, bring back national service - why aren't there any Police around ?"

And so on and so on....

The "lock em up and throw away the key" brigade has controlled the debate on law and order for a generation with successive Conservative and labour politicans trying to out-do each other in a grotesque dutch auction to see who can be the tougher.

From the "short shap shock" to ASBOs and curfews it's a case of "been there done that" for every half thought-out ill-conceived knee-jerk response.

And none of it has worked.

When liberals like me start arguing for a different response, we get shouted down by the populists who claim we are "soft" on crime, that we are more concerned with the criminal than the victim and how this shows we don't deserve to be in Government.

Yet our prisons are full to overcrowding, three out of every four youngsters who get locked up re-offend and we incarcerate a greater proportion of young people than any other western country.

David Cameron eulogises on the value of marriage and the stability of the family and on the latter point, he is right but it's a whole lot more complex and complicated than that. The way we choose or are encouraged to live our lives must be a factor. We work harder and longer hours than other countries, we seem more devoted to a consumption-oriented material-driven acquisitory lifestyle based on short-term artificial stimuli. Yes, we live for the moment but it's impossible to be in the fast lane all the time.

There is simply soo much going on all the time. Cities like London are full of events be they concerts or other mass gatherings. Chidren's lives are ordered and organised to the nth detail. It's little wonder that, in the same way as some find religion or spirituality an antidote to a hedonistic lifestyle, so the young might find chaos and rebellion an antidote to an over-structured life.

Whatever the reasons for youth crime, the debate needs to be much deeper than simply about punishment. Youth crime has existed for decades, most youth crime is against other young people and we might want to ask about the brutalisation of teenage and pre-teen societies and how advertising and the media may have contributed. Of course, incidents like Farningham Road must be pursued by the Police and the perpetrators convicted and imprisonned because that is attempted murder as I see it.

Let's have a debate about crime and punishment, law and order but let's not be afraid to question the role of the way we live and whether, for a peaceful society, we might be willing to accept some limitation on our material lifestyle.

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