The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he [Ed Balls] told the Guardian. In the Sixties, people worried about mods and rockers ‘beating each other up with their bike chains’. In the Seventies, they panicked about the punks. ‘Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.’
[Balls’ argument derives from] Geoffrey Pearson, a sociologist who in 1983 published Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, the most influential study of crime of the last generation. Rereading it now is disconcerting. Pearson is clearly a man of the left. He attacks the frightened middle-classes of his day for thinking that the young were out of control and the country was going to the dogs. Didn’t the dunces realise the middle classes have always thought that?
Yet for all his apparently radical scoffing at panic-stricken stuffed shirts, Pearson and his many imitators were rather conservative in their way. There is no change for better or worse, they implied, and nothing new under the sun. Britain t’was [sic] ever thus and didn’t need to combat crime with radical programmes from left or right to redistribute wealth or clampdown [sic] on lawlessness.
At the same time as Balls was unconsciously repeating the theories of Eighties’ academics, the impeccably liberal Centre for Crime and Justice Studies issued a grim report on homicide. The number of murders and the rate of murder have both doubled in the past 35 years, it said. Overwhelmingly, the victims and perpetrators lived in the modern equivalent of the slums.
It’s a minor point, but Nick’s reference to the CCJS’s publications is a bit confused. The Centre published an analysis of homicide trends between 1979 and 1999 in 2005; it’s linked from this recently-published analysis of the figures between 1995 and 2005. Ironically, anyone reading only the recent publication could get the impression Nick had misread the figures. There was a sizeable rise between 1995 and 2002/3 – from 662 homicides per year to 952 – but most of that was cancelled out by a decline in the next few years; the 2005/6 figure is 711.
Compare the older figures, though, and you can see that Nick saith sooth: homicide figures in the early 1970s were in the 300-400 range, and the increase since then has been concentrated in certain social groups. The CCJS study goes into some detail about exactly what’s changed since then; it’s worth a read, and Nick can be commended for giving it a plug.
It’s just a shame that he had to get there by misrepresenting both Ed Balls and Geoffrey Pearson. Scroll up:
The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he told the Guardian
You’ll look in vain for the name ‘Rhys Jones’ in Jackie Ashley’s interview with Ed Balls. Here’s the actual quote:
I was struck by how brusquely Balls dismissed the Tory charge of a broken society. “Most kids come out of school, walk home and do their homework, and most kids are probably a member of a club, or play in a sports team, or might do some volunteering. Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.
“Does the murder of Rhys Jones tell us anything about modern Britain?”
“Are we living in a ‘broken society’, as your political opponents claim?”
Slightly different questions, I think we can agree.
But I’m less bothered about Nick’s misrepresentation of Ed Balls – possibly the only contemporary politician always referred to by his full name – than by his travesty of Geoffrey Pearson’s argument. By way of background, here’s another take on the “nothing new under the sun” thesis which Nick attributes to Pearson:
Clearly we are in the midst of a ‘moral panic’ concerning hoodies, knife attacks, gangsta rap, gun culture, ASBOs, chavs and bling and the rest of it. But that is not to say that nothing is going on: in some neighbourhoods, local residents do live in fear of gangs of youths; the use of knives and guns is an extremely worrying problem; drugs are a relatively new aspect of risk culture for young people to engage with, whereas the demon drink is an old friend and foe. A common vulgarisation of the concept of ‘moral panic’ is that what is represented in the media is simply ʻmade up’, whereas the true concept emphasises the way in which media images magnify and amplify certain aspects of a phenomenon, while obscuring and down-playing others. So that, what is wrong with government and media responses to youth crime and anti-social behaviour is its emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the problem, while losing its grip on the actual social and historical background.
In other words, the point is not that nothing new is happening, but that our entrenched habits of thought make it harder for us to see what’s happening – and to work out why it’s happening, and what ‘radical programmes’ might be appropriate to deal with it. Social change is real, but we can’t grasp it by endorsing the lament that everything is worse now than it used to be – because everything has always been worse than it used to be.
The passage above is quoted from a 2006 issue of Criminal Justice Matters, the publication of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The author? Geoffrey Pearson.
What Nick’s straw-Pearson does is to collapse the space between “they’ve got nothing to worry about” and “they’re worrying about the wrong things”. To criticise people’s fears, Nick suggests, is to deny that they have anything to fear; to oppose a particular solution is to deny the existence of a problem. To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?