Antisocial behaviour: the construction of a crime

Now the New Labour government has revealed its 'respect' agenda, the problem of 'antisocial behaviour' has moved to the forefront of political debate. But what is it?

Stuart Waiton

Topics Books

‘Antisocial: opposed to the principles on which society is constituted.’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 1885). ‘Antisocial: contrary to the laws and customs of society; causing annoyance and disapproval in others: children’s antisocial behaviour.’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989).

‘Antisocial behaviour’ is used as a catch-all term to describe anything from noisy neighbours and graffiti to kids hanging out on the street. Indeed, it appears that almost any kind of unpleasant behaviour is now categorised as antisocial, with the behaviour of children and young people most often labelled as such (1). This expresses a growing perception that the ‘laws and customs of society’ are being undermined by rowdy youngsters.

Yet the term ‘antisocial behaviour’ was rarely used until the 1990s. Throughout the 1980s a couple of articles a year were printed in the UK discussing antisocial behaviour, whereas in January 2004 alone there were over 1,000 such articles (2). Not even the most pessimistic social critic would suggest a parallel increase in problem behaviour. Indeed, in recent years there has been a slight fall in actual vandalism, for example, against a dramatic increase in newspaper mentions of antisocial behaviour (3).

When looking at the issue of antisocial behaviour, the starting point for most commentators is to accept that the problem exists and to then work out why people are more antisocial today. The ‘collapse of communities’ is often seen as a key influence in the rise of antisocial behaviour, with young people growing up without positive role models and a framework within which to develop into sociable adults.

This idea of the loss of a sense of community – or indeed of ‘society’ – rings true. We are indeed more atomised and individuated today, and there are fewer common bonds that hold people together and give them a ‘social identity’. It is less clear, however, that this necessarily means people are increasingly out of control, antisocial and on the road to criminality. Alternatively you could argue that this fragmentation of communities and of social values has helped foment a ‘culture of fear’ (4) – a culture that elevates what were previously understood as petty problems into socially significant ones.

This essay examines the construction of the social problem of antisocial behaviour, by focusing, not on the behaviour of young people, but on the role of the political elite. It may be understandable for a tenants’ association or local councillor to be engaged by the issue of noisy neighbours and rowdy children – but for the prime minister to prioritise this issue as one of his main concerns for the future of the nation seems rather strange. What is it that has put ‘antisocial behaviour’ so high up on the political agenda?

Constructing crime as a social problem

When introducing laws against antisocial behaviour, curfews, and new crime initiatives, the New Labour government invariably asserts that these are in response to the concerns of the public. While there is undoubtedly a high level of public anxiety about crime and about the various problems and irritations now described as antisocial behaviour, this anxiety is clearly shaped by the concerns of the political elite. It is also worth noting that when the government highlights particular ‘social problems’ as being significant for society, it puts other issues and outlooks on the back burner.

The elevation of crime and, more recently, antisocial behaviour, into a political issue has helped both to reinforce the significance given to this kind of behaviour and to frame the way social problems are understood. By defining antisocial behaviour as a major social problem, the political elite has, over the past decade, helped to generate a spiralling preoccupation with the petty behaviour of young people. At no time in history has the issue of crime as a social problem in and of itself been so central to all of the political parties in the UK – and yet, there has been a significant statistical fall in crime itself.

The key difference between the moral panics over crime and social disorder in the past and anxiety about crime and disorder today is that this anxiety has now been institutionalised by the political elite.

Up until the 1970s the political elite, as distinct from individual politicians and the media, generally challenged or dismissed the panics associated with youth crime and subsequently held in check the effects they had. In opposing certain calls for more laws and regulations on society, more reactionary ways of understanding these problems were often rejected and the institutionalisation of measures that help create new norms were equally opposed. For example, while the moral panic that arose in the media around the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s has been widely discussed thanks to Stanley Cohen’s famous study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, first published in 1972 (5), these concerns were marginal to politicians, and never became an organising principle of political life.

More recently, however, the political elite has panicked and legislated on the strength of extreme one-off events, like for example the Dunblane shootings in 1996, which resulted in the banning of handguns, or the killing of Victoria Climbie in 2000, which led to legislation requiring schools to organise around child protection. An important consequence of the institutionalisation of anxiety is that in contrast to the intermittent moral panics of the past, panics are now an almost permanent feature of society. And whereas moral panics – particularly before the 1990s – were generated within a traditional conservative moral framework, today it is the new ‘amoral’ absolute of safety within which they tend to develop.

Politicising crime

The politicisation of crime can be dated back to the 1970s, with the 1970 Conservative government being the first to identify itself explicitly as the party of law and order. As crime developed as a political issue through the 1970s, however, it was fiercely contested. When Conservatives shouted ‘law and order’, the left would reject the idea that crime was increasing or was a social problem in and of itself, pointing instead to the social problems thought to underlie it.

Significant sections of the left, influenced in part by radical criminologists in the USA, challenged the ‘panics’ – as they saw them – promoted by the so-called New Right. They questioned the official statistics on crime, challenging the ‘labelling’ of deviants by ‘agents of social control’, and attacked the moral and political basis of these panics (6). Thus, the idea that crime was a broader ‘social problem’ remained contested.

Crime became a political issue at a time when there was an increase in serious political and social conflicts, following the more consensual political framework of the postwar period. Unemployment and strikes increased, as did the number of political demonstrations, and the conflict in Ireland erupted.

In contrast to the current concern about crime and antisocial behaviour, which emerged in the 1990s, the New Right under Margaret Thatcher promoted crime as a problem very much within a traditional ideological framework. In 1988, Alan Phipps described the Tory approach to crime like this:

‘Firstly, it became conflated with a number of other issues whose connection was continually reinforced in the public mind – permissiveness, youth cultures, demonstrations, public disorders, black immigration, student unrest, and trade union militancy. Secondly, crime – by now a metaphorical term invoking the decline of social stability and decent values – was presented as only one aspect of a bitter harvest for which Labour’s brand of social democracy and welfarism was responsible.’ (7)

As part of a political challenge to Labourism in the 1970s and 80s, Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher developed an authoritarian approach to the ‘enemy within’, which attributed greater political significance to criminality than its effects on victims. Despite an increase in the financial support to the Victim Support schemes in the late 1980s, victims of crime were themselves often used politically, ‘paraded’ by Conservative politicians and by sections of the media as symbols of disorder, not as the central focus of law and order policy or rhetoric itself.

Sociologist Joel Best describes a process of typification, whereby an often extreme example of crime is used to define a more general perceived problem (8). The ‘typical’ criminals of the 1970s and 1980s were the violent trade union militant and the young black mugger. Traditional British values and individual freedoms were contrasted to the collectivist, promiscuous values of the ‘enemy within’ (9). Even burglars were understood as being part of the ‘something for nothing society’. Here the ‘criminal’, whether the trade union member, the mugger or the burglar, far from being a victim of circumstance, was an enemy of the state, and, importantly, the damage being done was not primarily to the victim of crime but to the moral values of society as a whole.

‘Social control’ and ‘public order’ were promoted within both a political and moral framework in which the deviant in question was likewise understood to have certain political or moral traits that needed to be confronted. Where the petty criminal acts of children were mentioned, the target was not simply this behaviour itself, nor the impact it had on individuals, but rather the ‘soft liberal’ moral values – held by teachers and social workers – that it was argued were undermining British Victorian values of discipline and hard work. In keeping with this, Thatcher saw the responsibility for cutting crime not simply as that of the government or police, but also of the public, who, it was argued, should take action to defend themselves.

Go directly to jail

‘The demand for law and order, which at first sight appears to attempt a restoration of moral standards, actually acknowledges and acquiesces in their collapse. Law and order comes to be seen as the only effective deterrent in a society that no longer knows the difference between right and wrong.’ (Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World, 1977.)

American sociologist Christopher Lasch identified key developments in the USA in the 1970s. In the UK, while an increasing emphasis on law and order reflected a certain weakening of the political elite’s grip on society, crime had been understood in largely ideological and political terms. Thatcher used the issue of crime in the battle against Labourism and welfarism.

By the early 1990s, however, things were changing fast. John Major’s desperate and ultimately failed attempt to revitalise the political dynamic of the Conservatives with his ‘Back to Basics’ campaign in 1993 demonstrated the Tories’ inability to develop a political direction that engaged both the elite and the electorate, and it was at this point that the politics of crime took on a new, less ideological, but even more authoritarian character.

The issue of ‘persistent young offenders’ became a political issue and a recognised ‘social problem’ in 1992 and exploded as an issue of concern in 1993. The ‘violent trade union militant’ was now replaced by this ‘persistent young offender’ as the ‘typical’ criminal, and, as then home secretary Michael Howard explained, ‘self-centred…young hoodlums’ would ‘no longer be able to use age’ as a way of hiding from the law (10).

It is important to note that under Thatcher, despite the ‘most consistent, vitriolic and vindictive affront to justice and welfare’ in general, the criminal justice approach to young people developed under principles that resulted in ‘diversion, decriminalisation and decarceration in policy and practice with children in trouble’ (11). Despite the tough rhetoric with regard to adult crime, the Thatcher administration maintained a pragmatic and even progressive policy towards young offenders. Under John Major this all changed. The enemy within became ‘minors rather than the miners’ (12).

With the end of the contestation between right and left, and the resulting decline in the ideological politicisation of crime, the direct control and regulation of the population substantially increased, and between 1993 and 1995 there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of people imprisoned (13). Politically-based authoritarianism was replaced by a more reactive ‘apolitical’ authoritarianism which was directed less at the politics and moral values of the organised labour movement and other enemies within, than at the more psychologically-framed behaviour of individuals. ‘Antisocial behaviour’ now began to be recognised as a significant ‘social problem’ around which new laws and institutional practices could be developed.

Following Lasch, it appears that by 1993 law and order had come to be seen as the only effective resource for a political elite that no longer knew the difference between right and wrong. Rather than using the fight against crime in an effort to shape the moral and political outlook of adults in society, the Conservative government increasingly opted simply to lock people up, thus acknowledging and acquiescing in its own political and moral collapse.

Cultures of crime

As part of the growing preoccupation with the ‘underclass’, the floundering Major government also attacked what he described as a ‘yob culture’. This identification of an alien, criminal culture had developed in the late 1980s, as crime panics began to move away from concerns with the organised working class and shifted on to the behaviour of ‘hooligans’ and ‘lager louts’.

The criminalisation of the working class, by the early 1990s, was framed not in political terms, but increasingly as an attack on the imagined ‘cultures’ of alien groups. These aliens were no longer black outsiders or militants, but white, working class, and young, who could be found not on demonstrations but in pubs and estates across the UK. The door was now open for an attack on the personal behaviour and habits of anyone seen to be acting in an ‘antisocial’ manner.

The idea of there being alternative ‘cultures’, expressed by conservative thinkers at this time, implied that significant sections of the public were no longer open to civilising influences. However, and somewhat ironically, within criminological theory, this idea of impenetrable cultures had developed from radicals themselves back in the 1970s. Stanley Cohen and the cultural studies groups of the Birmingham Centre had been the first to identify youth cultures and deviant subcultures as specific types of people existing within a ‘different life-world’. At a time of greater political radicalism, these groups were credited with positive ‘difference’. With the decline of radical thought these imagined cultures were rediscovered in the 1990s, but this time were seen as increasingly problematic (14).

In reality, the growing preoccupation with ‘cultures’ – for example the discovery of a ‘knife culture’ in 1992 – was a reflection of a loss of belief in politics as a way of understanding and resolving wider social problems. With the loss of ideologically based politics on the right and the left, reflected in the rise of New Labour, the problem of crime became increasingly understood as a problem of and for individuals.

New Labour, New Social Problems

‘What my constituents see as politics has changed out of all recognition during the 20 years or so since I first became their Member of Parliament. From a traditional fare of social security complaints, housing transfers, unfair dismissals, as well as job losses, constituents now more often than not ask what can be done to stop their lives being made a misery by the unacceptable behaviour of some neighbours, or more commonly, their neighbours’ children.

The Labour MP Frank Field, in his book Neighbours from Hell: The Politics of Behaviour (2003), explained how politics had become a matter of regulating behaviour. Field neglected to ask himself whether poor housing and a lack of opportunities are no longer problems, or whether his constituents have simply lost faith in politicians’ ability to do anything about them. Similarly, Field ignored the role the Labour Party itself played in reducing politics to questions of noisy neighbours and rowdy youngsters, and the way in which New Labour in the 1990s helped to repose ‘traditional’ social concerns around issues of crime and disorder.

A more fragmented and atomised public was undoubtedly subject to a ‘culture of fear’, but the role of New Labour was central to the promotion of concerns related to antisocial behaviour. Under Tony Blair, crime became a central issue for the Labour Party, especially after Blair’s celebrated ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ speech in 1994. This ended any major political opposition to the recently reposed ‘social problem’ of crime. A key ‘right’ for New Labour now became the ‘right’ to be, and to feel, safe.

By 1997 the New Labour manifesto was strikingly confrontational around the issues of crime and antisocial behaviour. As the Guardian newspaper noted in April of that year:

‘There are areas where Neil Kinnock’s manifesto barely ventured. In 1992, crime, for instance, rated five paragraphs and mainly concentrated on improving street lighting. Now law and order rates two pages with the now familiar “zero tolerance” strategies and child curfews fighting for room next to pledges to early legislation for a post-Dunblane ban on all handguns. Such policies seemed unthinkable five years ago. However, in this case, Blair’s “radicalism” – with its social authoritarian tinge – may play better with the centre rather than the Left.’

Freed from the politics of welfarism and the labour movement, New Labour in the early 1990s reoriented its approach to the politics of crime, not only accepting that crime was a key social problem in and of itself, but also in expanding it to include the non-criminal antisocial behaviour of ‘neighbours from hell’ and ‘antisocial youth’. With the prioritisation of crime and antisocial behaviour came a focus upon the emotional reaction of victims, reflected in the concern with the fear of crime.

‘Tackling the epidemic of crime and disorder’ was now a ‘top priority for Labour in government’ and ‘securing people’s physical security and freeing them from the fear of crime and disorder’ was described as the ‘greatest liberty government can guarantee’ (15). Liberty was transformed from the active freedom of individuals, to the protection given to them by government and the police.

In contrast to the social and economic framework within which crime had been largely understood by the ‘active’ labour movement in the 1980s, New Labour now addressed the problems of crime and disorder with reference to a more passive, disorganised and fragmented public. As the government took a more direct approach to tackling crime in its own terms, so the issue expanded to consume problems that previously had been understood in more political terms. Accordingly, social, economic and political solutions were replaced by attempts to regulate the behaviour of both criminals and antisocial neighbours and children. Imprisonment, antisocial behaviour orders and more intense forms of behaviour management of parents and children increasingly became the political solution offered by New Labour to these problems.

Engaged by safety

The term ‘community safety’ did not exist until the late 1980s, but has subsequently become a core strategic category around which local authorities and national government have developed community-based policies. Community safety is not about crime as such, but is more broadly about the fear of crime and of petty antisocial acts, especially committed by young people, and thought to undermine communities’ sense of security. Here the loss of ‘community’ that has been generated by such major social shifts as the defeat of the old Labour movement and the weakening of the postwar institutional welfare framework has been reinterpreted as a problem of mischievous children creating fear across society.

An important watershed in the organisation of society around the issues of safety was then shadow home secretary Jack Straw’s notorious attack in 1995 on the ‘aggressive begging of winos, addicts and squeegee merchants’ (16). Only a year earlier, Straw had accused John Major of ‘climbing into the gutter alongside the unfortunate beggars’ when the prime minister had made seemingly similar comments (17).

There was an important difference, however. Major and his chancellor Kenneth Clarke had attacked beggars as dole scroungers – ‘beggars in designer jeans’ who receive benefits and ‘think it is perfectly acceptable to add to their income by begging’. Still understanding crime through the political prism of welfarism, Clarke saw begging as a criminal act that defrauded the benefit system. In his later attack on beggars, Jack Straw redefined the issue. For Straw the problem was not the crime of begging or the political or economic problem of benefit fraud, but the disorderly and intimidating behaviour of the aggressive beggar, which was understood to increase the fear of crime and help to undermine society’s sense of wellbeing (18).

Jack Straw believed that the Tories had failed to understand the significance of street disorder as a cause of the fear of crime, the ‘loutish behaviour and incivility’ that made the streets ‘uncomfortable, especially for women and black and Asian people’ (19). The issue for New Labour was not the political question of benefit fraud, but the emotional sense of security of a newly discovered vulnerable public.

By the time the election year of 1997 came around the soon to be prime minister, Tony Blair, had elaborated on the typical beggar. This was not a man quietly scrounging money off the public, but the often drunken ‘in your face’ lout who would, ‘push people against a wall and demand money effectively with menace’ (20). No figures for the rise in bullying beggars were given, but Tony Blair noted that he himself sometimes felt frightened when he dropped his children off at King’s Cross in London – a notorious area for ‘winos’, prostitutes and ‘aggressive beggars’. Straw, using a well-worn feminist slogan, demanded that we ‘reclaim the streets’ – streets that had been ‘brutalised’ by beggars and graffiti vandals.

The radical creation of victimhood

Because much of this rhetoric of intimidation, abuse and the collapse of communities has its origins in the radical school of criminology, Labour politicians felt able to employ it without embarrassment. In the late 1980s, left-wing and feminist criminologists had a significant influence on Labour-run inner-city councils, carrying out victim surveys, and sitting on a number of council boards particularly within the Greater London Council. Developing out of the radical framework of the early 1970s, a number of such criminologists had become disillusioned with the fight for political and social change and, rather than challenging the focus on crime as an expression of class prejudice as they once might have, increasingly identified crime as a major issue, particularly for the poor, women and blacks who were now conceived of as ‘victims’ of crime.

Instead of identifying with and engaging its constituency in terms of politics and public matters, the left sought a new relationship with the poor and oppressed based on their private fears and their sense of powerlessness. Identifying fear as a major factor in the disaggregation of these communities, the so-called ‘left realists’ noted that it was not only crime but the non-criminal harassment of women and petty antisocial behaviour of young people that was the main cause of this fear among victimised groups (21).

The identification of harassed victims of antisocial behaviour rose proportionately with the declining belief in the possibility of radical social change. As the ‘active’ potential of the working class to ‘do’ something about the New Right declined, Jock Young and other realists uncovered the vulnerable ‘done to’ poor.

Discussing the shift in Labour councils from radicalism to realism, Young noted that:

‘The recent history of radical criminology in Britain has involved a rising influence of feminist and anti-racist ideas and an encasement of left-wing Labour administrations in the majority of the inner-city Town Halls. An initial ultra-leftism has been tempered and often transformed by a prevalent realism in the wake of the third consecutive defeat of the Labour Party on the national level and severe defeats with regards to “rate capping” in terms of local politics. The need to encompass issues which had a widespread support among the electorate, rather than indulge in marginal or “gesture” politics included the attempt to recapture the issue of law and order from the right.’ (22)

Indeed, crime and the fear of it became so central to Young’s understanding of the conditions of the working class that, on finding that young men’s fear of crime was low – despite their being the main victims of crime – he argued that they had a false consciousness. Rather than trying to allay women’s fears about the slim chance of serious crime happening to them, Young asked whether it ‘would not be more advisable to attempt to raise the fear of crime of young men rather than to lower that of other parts of the public?’. For the first time, it was safety that began to frame the relationship between the local authority and the public, expressing a shift from a social welfare model of that relationship to one of protection.

The significance of the left realists and feminists at this time is that they were the first people systematically to redefine large sections of the working class as ‘victims’, and thus helped to reorient Labour local authorities towards a relationship of protection to the public at the expense of the newly targeted antisocial youth. It is this sense of the public as fundamentally vulnerable, coupled with the disengagement of the Labour Party from its once active constituency within the working class and the subsequent sense of society being out of control, that has informed the development of New Labour’s antisocial behaviour initiatives.

Issues related to inner-city menace, crime and what was now labelled antisocial behaviour, which had been identified as social problems by conservative thinkers periodically for over a century, now engaged the Labour Party. Increasingly for New Labour, having abandoned extensive socioeconomic intervention, the problem of the disaggregation of communities and the subsequent culture of fear that grew out of the 1980s was identified as a problem of crime, disorder and more particularly the antisocial behaviour of young people.

The Hamilton Curfew and the politics of fear

The development of the politics of antisocial behaviour was accelerated in 1997 when the first ‘curfew’ in the UK was set up in a number of housing estates in Hamilton in the west of Scotland. Introduced by a Labour council, this was a multi-agency initiative involving the notoriously ‘zero tolerance’ Strathclyde Police and the council’s social work department. The curfew that followed was officially called the Child Safety Initiative.

This community safety approach reflected a number of the trends identified above. Rather than tackling crime as such, the initiative was supposed to tackle the broader, non-criminal problem of antisocial behaviour, in order to keep the community free from crime and also, significantly, free from the fear of crime (23).

The rights of people in the community promoted by this initiative were not understood in terms of a libertarian notion of individual freedoms, nor within a welfarist conception of the right to jobs and services. Rather it was ‘the right to be safe’ and the ‘right to a quiet life’ that Labour councillors promoted. Without a collective framework within which to address social problems, and concomitantly without a more robust sense of the active individual, a relationship of protection was posited between the local authority and the communities in question. Talk of ‘rights and responsibilities’ implied the right of vulnerable individuals to be and feel safe, not by being active in their own community but rather by either keeping their children off the streets, or by phoning the police whenever they felt insecure.

Advocates of the Child Safety Initiative identified all sections of the community as being at risk – children were at risk simply by being unsupervised; adults were at risk from teenagers who hung about the streets; and young people were at risk from their peers, who could, by involving one another in drink, drugs and crime, ‘set patterns’ for the rest of their lives, as the head of the social work department argued. Even those teenagers involved in antisocial and criminal activities were understood as an ‘at risk’ group – the ‘juvenile delinquents’ of the past were thus recast as ‘vulnerable teenagers’ who needed protection from each other.

The centrality of the concern with victims of crime, which has developed since the Hamilton curfew was first introduced, is reflected within the curfew itself. In effect all sections of the public were understood to be either victims or vulnerable, potential victims of their neighbours and of local young people. The legitimacy of the police and the local authority was based not on a wider ideological, political or moral platform, but simply on their ability to protect these victims.

The politics of antisocial behaviour lacks any clear ideological or moral framework, and therefore it has no obvious constituency. In fact, the basis of the Child Safety Initiative was the weakness of community. Rather than being derived from a politically engaged public, the authority of the council and the police was assumed, or ‘borrowed’, from that public in the guise of individual victims. Accordingly, the police in Hamilton constantly felt under pressure to show that the potential victims they were protecting – especially the young people who were subject to the curfew – supported what they were doing.

Of course, nobody has a monopoly on borrowed authority. A number of children’s charities similarly took it upon themselves to speak for the children, arguing that the curfew infringed their ‘rights’ and coming up with alternative surveys showing that young people opposed the use of curfews. There was little effort to make a substantial political case against the curfew, however. In fact, ‘child-friendly’ groups and individuals tended to endorse the presentation of young people and children as fundamentally vulnerable potential victims, and some opposed the curfew only on the basis that children would be forced back into the home where they were even more likely to be abused.

Just as Blair was put on the defensive over his attack on aggressive begging by charities campaigning for the rights of the victimised homeless, so the curfew exposed the authorities to charges of ‘harassing’ or ‘bullying’ young people. Since the curfew was justified precisely on the basis of protecting young people from these things, the charge was all the more damaging. This was more than a tricky PR issue: it demonstrated a fundamental problem with the politics of antisocial behaviour.

In presenting the public as vulnerable and in need of protection, the state transformed the basis of its own authority from democratic representation to a more precarious quasi-paternalism; in effect it became a victim protection agency. The very social atomisation and lack of political cohesion that underlies the politics of antisocial behaviour means that the authority of the state is constantly in question, despite the fact that its assumptions about the vulnerability of the public are widely shared. As such, the Hamilton curfew gave concrete expression to the attempt to re-engage a fragmented public around the issue of safety, and the difficulties this throws up.

Criminalising mischief

In contrast to the pragmatic approach of past political elites to the issue of crime and occasional panics about delinquent youth, the current elite has come to see crime, the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour as major ‘social problems’. With the emergence of New Labour in the 1990s any major political opposition to the issue of crime as a key social problem has disappeared and its centrality to political debate and public discourse was established.

Under New Labour, however, the concerns being addressed and the ‘social problems’ being defined are less to do with crime and criminals than with annoying children and noisy neighbours. These petty irritations of everyday life have been relabelled ‘antisocial behaviour’, something which is understood to be undermining both individuals’ and society’s sense of well being. At its most ridiculous extreme what we are witnessing is the criminalisation of mischief (24).

Basil Curley, Manchester council’s housing executive, told the Guardian: ‘Yes, we used to bang on doors when we were young. But there used to be badger-baiting once, too. It’s different now, isn’t it? Things are moving on; people want to live differently.’ (25) This casual comparison of children playing ‘knocky door neighbour’ with the brutality of badger-baiting tells us nothing about young people, but indicates that what has changed is the adult world with an inflated sense of vulnerability driving all antisocial behaviour initiatives.

For New Labour the problem of the disaggregation of communities and the subsequent culture of fear that grew out of the 1980s was located within politics as a problem of crime and disorder. Devoid of a sense of social progress, in the 1990s it was the political elites – both right and left – who became the driving force for reinterpreting social problems within a framework of community safety. Lacking any coherent political direction, the government has both reacted to and reinforced panics about crime and disorder, institutionalising practices and initiatives based upon society’s sense of fear and anxiety.

In an attempt both to regulate society and to reengage the public, over the past eight years New Labour has subsequently encouraged communities to participate in and organise around a raft of safety initiatives. Despite the fall in the official crime statistics society’s sense of insecurity has remained endemic and no ‘sense of community’ has been re-established, much to the government’s frustration.

However, rather than recognising that constructing a society around the issue of safety has only helped to further the public’s sense of insecurity, New Labour is becoming ever more reactive and developing more and more policies to regulate a growing range of ‘antisocial’ activities and forms of behaviour. By thrashing around for solutions to the ‘politics of behaviour’ in this way, the government is helping to fuel the spiral of fear and alienation across society.

Rather than validating the more robust active side of our character, validation is given to the most passive self-doubting aspects of our personality. Communities and a society that is more at ease with itself would expect men and women of character to resolve problems of everyday life themselves, and would equally condemn those who constantly deferred to the authorities as being antisocial. Today, however, we are all being encouraged to act in an antisocial manner and demand antisocial behaviour orders on our neighbours and their children.

Rather than looking someone in the eye and resolving the incivilities we often face, we can increasingly rely on the CCTV cameras to do this, or alternatively look to the community wardens, the neighbourhood police and the antisocial task force to resolve these problems for us. We are told to act responsibly, but are expected to call on others to be responsible for dealing with noisy neighbours or rowdy children. As this approach develops a new public mood is being created, a mood based on the notion of ‘safety first’ where an increasing number of people and problems become the concern of the police and local authorities.

This weakened sense of individuals is a reflection of the political elite itself, which lacks the moral force and political direction that could help develop a sense of community. Ultimately, it is the crisis of politics that is the basis for the preoccupation with curtain-twitching issues – the product of an antisocial elite, which is ultimately creating a society in its own image.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Who’s Antisocial? New Labour and the Politics of Antisocial Behaviour, the second of the Institute of Ideas’ series of occasional papers, written by Craig O’Malley and Stuart Waiton and edited by Dolan Cummings.

(1) The original use of the term antisocial identified by the Oxford English Dictionary relates to a James MacKintosh in 1802 who wrote about and condemned the ‘rebellious, antisocial and blasphemous..books’, published during the French Revolution. Again in 1844 republican revolutionaries, this time in Dublin who were contesting the British government were labelled as being ‘antisocial..dark, malignant and atrocious’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 1889). That the term antisocial, today typically refers to children rather than revolutionaries tells us more about contemporary society and the loss of political and moral certainty than about the behaviour of children

(2) A Factiva and a separate Lexis Nexis media search found the occasional article using the term ‘antisocial behaviour’ in the 1980s and from the 1990s on there was an exponential increase in its use, with around a thousand a month in 2004

(3) See a graph based on data from Factiva and the British Crime Survey, ‘Enemies of the state?’, The Economist, 5 February 2005

(4) See F Furedi (1997) Culture of Fear, London: Cassell

(5) Cohen, S (2002) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London: Routledge (first published in 1972)

(6) See Joel Best (2004) Deviance: Career of a Concept. Toronto: Wadsworth, for a description of the rise of radical criminology. A key study on the law and order panics of the 1970s can also be found in Stuart Hall et al (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan

(7) Phipps, Alan (1988) ‘Ideologies, political parties and victims of crime’, in Maguire and Pointing Victims of Crime: A New Deal? Milton Keynes: Open University Press

(8) Best, J (1999) Random Violence, Berkeley: University of California Press

(9) Milne, S (1995) The Enemy within: The Secret War Against the Miners. London: Pan

(10) Goldson, B. in Scratton, P (1997) ‘Childhood’ in Crisis? London: UCL Press

(11) Goldson, B. in Scratton, P (1997) ‘Childhood’ in Crisis? London: UCL Press

(12) Goldson, B. in Scratton, P (1997) ‘Childhood’ in Crisis? London: UCL Press

(13) By the end of 2003 the prison population had continued to rise and stood at over 74,000 – the highest figure since the war – despite the officially recorded continuous fall in crime from the mid 1990s

(14) For a full explanation of the significance of ‘culture’ and the role of radical criminology in helping to develop a static conception of man, see Andrew Calcutt in Wolton, S (1996) Marxism, Mysticism and Modern Theory. London: Macmillan

(15) Labour Party (1996) Tackling the causes of crime: Labour’s proposals to prevent crime and criminality

(16) The Guardian, 5 September 1995

(17) The Times, 29 May 1994

(18) The Guardian, 6 September 1995

(19) The Guardian, 9 September 1995

(20) The Guardian, 8 January 1997

(21) Lea, J. and Young, J (1984) What is to be done about law and order? Harmondsworth: Penguin

(22) Young, Jock (1988) ‘Radical Criminology in Britain: The Emergence of a Competing Paradigm’ British Journal Of Criminology (Vol.28 No.2)

(23) For a full analysis of the Hamilton curfew see Waiton, S (2001) Scared of the Kids? Leicester: Perpetuity Press

(24) Mischief: defined as ‘wayward but not malicious behaviour, usually of children’ (Collins Modern English Dictionary 1987), is a term that has almost been lost to the English language, as just about any misbehaviour is today interpreted as potentially damaging

(25) Quoted in ‘When home’s a prison’, by Decca Aitkenhead, Guardian Weekend, 24 July 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today