New Labour’s crime- tinted spectacles

It’s a bit rich for a government that has screwed up the economy to fret about social atavism during a recession.

Neil Davenport

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On 24 September, in central London, spiked is hosting a public debate titled ‘Are we talking ourselves into a recession?’ Here, Neil Davenport argues that the UK Home Secretary’s scaremongering claim that crime and violent extremism will rise during a recession assumes the worst of the British public. Buy your tickets for the spiked debate below.

According to a leaked document written by UK home secretary Jacqui Smith, violent crime, burglaries and far-right extremism could rise in Britain as the effects of the economic downturn take their toll.

Home Office minister Tony McNulty echoed Smith’s warnings. ‘This really is a statement of the blindingly obvious’, he said. ‘People would be astonished if the Home Office weren’t looking at how the relationship between crime and the criminal justice system and the economy interact and relate with each other.’ (1)

The truly astonishing thing about Smith’s document is how, even on social and economic matters, New Labour cannot resist scaremongering about the potential problem of individual behaviour. And once again, Smith and McNulty’s assessment of ordinary Britons reveals more about their own jaundiced prejudices than it does about any economic or social reality.

According to McNulty: ‘Previous experience dictates that, to an extent, when we do have a slowdown in the economy, some aspects of crime may go up.’ Yet the patterns of crime of the past are not necessarily an indicator for what might happen in the future. Indeed, judging by McNulty’s tentative suggestions that crime ‘may go up… to an extent’, the government is employing speculative fears rather than hard evidence to plot the future.

The government is rehearsing a long-held truism of left-wing thinking – that the negative consequences of poverty can have a corrosive impact on standards of behaviour in a community. This may be true, of course, but it is only ever part of the explanation for criminal and deviant acts. What also matters is the levels of social solidarity within communities, and people’s shared understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

In response to McNulty’s claim that the equation ‘poverty = crime’ is ‘blindingly obvious’, some have correctly pointed out that in other periods of economic slump, such as in the 1930s, anti-social behaviour in local communities was fairly negligible. There are always more factors than poverty alone when it comes to the cause and extent of anti-social behaviour.

However ill-founded Smith and McNulty’s comments may be, they do show how far official thinking has shifted on economic matters. When the Conservative governments of the 1980s presided over mass unemployment and wage cuts, a key theme in any debate about the impact of economic downturn was the hardship heaped on individuals and families.

Back then, the competence of a political party was judged, in large part, by its ability to deliver prosperity to the mass of the electorate. Even though law and order was a central plank of Thatcher’s governments, the problems of unemployment were still addressed in their own concrete terms, relating to the issue of living standards and poverty, rather than from the standpoint of speculation about criminal acts that might occur as the downturn takes hold.

Incredibly, Smith seems more preoccupied with lurid tales of possible cigarette and tobacco smuggling during the recession, rather than with the question of whether unemployed or less well-off families will be able to afford spiralling fuel and food costs. Rather than worrying about the government’s lack of economic competence and political vision, and how to rectify those problems, the emphasis seems always to be on panicking about how people might behave if left to their own devices.

On one level, there is some transparent scapegoating going on here, carried out by a beleaguered and politically exhausted administration. Yet there is something new, too. Where Conservative governments in the past outrageously blamed immigrants and black people for the ‘real problems’ in British society, today, New Labour’s phoney concern about a recession possibly generating ‘hostility towards migrants’ or increasing support for far-right organisations is code for arguing that the white working classes are ripping up the fabric of society.

Smith and McNulty seem obsessed by individual behaviour and devising ways to bring it into line. Indeed, it has been less widely reported that Smith has also commented on some of the possible benefits of an economic recession in terms of reshaping behaviour. For example, individuals won’t be able to go out drinking, clubbing or taking drugs as much as they do now. Here, the government has much in common with a view that is emerging, slowly but surely, in green-leaning circles: that a recession might be a good thing if it curbs consumerism and individual greed.

Whether it is banal discussions about affluence causing crime (as recently claimed by New Labourite David Lammy) or poverty causing crime (as preferred by Smith and McNulty), the finger is always pointed at the antics of the apparently impressionable general public. Why? Because, unlike the economy, which seems beyond the control of our incompetent leaders, individual behaviour is one area where New Labour hacks feel more confident and cocky. As Smith says about the apparent forthcoming explosion in recession-related crime and extremism: ‘We are better placed now than we were with equivalent problems in the 1970s and 1990s to tackle them.’

She is right on one level. The right of the government to extensively and intrusively monitor individual behaviour is one thing that New Labour has successfully developed over the past decade.

The attempt to scapegoat ordinary Britons for problems of economic recession is bad enough. But to use economic hardship either to panic about the imagined atavism of the masses or to herald a new, forced brake on our consumption habits… well, the only thing that is ‘blindingly obvious’ is that New Labour and its supporters are contemptuous of the possibly recession-hit public.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Buy your tickets now for the spiked debate ‘Are we talking ourselves into a recession?’ in London on 24 September. Click here.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben-Ami described how even free marketeers have lost faith in capitalism. Neil Davenport attacked the . Sean Collins explained how discussion of recession is based on the economics of fear Mick Hume showed how the real depression in political outlook and the dangers of inflating the importance of house prices. Or read more at spiked issue: Economy.

(1) Tony McNulty: ‘blindingly obvious’ that crime and extremism could rise in recession, Times, Monday 1 September 2008

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

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