Saturday, July 26, 2008

David Cameron's bicycle and the demoralisation of society

At a Lib Dem Conference a few years ago, a Prominent Liberal Democrat told me with glee that Iain Duncan Smith had recently visited his constituency. While he was there, I was told, IDS had his car broken into and a briefcase was stolen.

What struck me was the gleeful attitude of the Prominent Liberal Democrat. He was not pleased that IDS had been the victim of a crime, but he was delighted that he had been caught not obeying police advice by leaving the briefcase in his car where it could be seen. Behind this was the implication that he had somehow been hypocritical: these Tories say they want to bring crime down, but look how they behave in practice.

I was too polite so say so at the time, but this seemed the wrong attitude to me. It ought to be possible to leave your briefcase in your car without it being stolen. To blame the victim of such a a crime seems perverse to me.

There has been a similar attitude displayed by some Lib Dems over the theft of David Cameron's bicycle. Both Dave Radcliffe and Paul Walter hold him responsible because he did not secure it properly. Neither thinks it worth condemning the thief.

The trouble with this approach of urging everyone to take maximum precautions against theft is that you end up with advice like this from today's Guardian:

  • Buy inexpensive model for everyday use. Make it look unappealing by painting it an ugly colour.
Who wants to own a bicycle at all under such circumstances?

The same points arise in the debate over knife crime.

Before I went on holiday Paul Walter (hello again) called for a ban on the sale of "long pointed kitchen knives". Then, while I was away, the Lib Dems complained that no one was jailed for selling a knife to a child in England and Wales in the five years up to 2006. A party press release quoted Chris Huhne as saying:
"Unscrupulous shopkeepers who sell knives to kids are profiting from the violence on our streets. It is unacceptable that so few of them are being punished and those that do are being given such pitiful fines. If we are to tackle knife crime, a strong message must be sent to those who ply this deadly trade. Fining them a few hundred quid is not going to do that."
The idea that it might be possible to raise a generation of young people who do not stab one another even when they have access to knives is wholly absent from this debate.

Yet, as my only semi-fictional alter ego wrote on the New Statesman website the other day:
These hills used to be alive with Boy Scouts and their knives, every ready to sharpen a tent peg or skin a rabbit. (They may have been skinning the pegs and sharpening the rabbits. My memory is hazy on this point.)
The world that the current anti-crime movement envisages is something like a cross between a secure psychiatric hospital and an airport departure lounge. There are no sharp edges, in case we hurt ourselves or someone else, and to own or display something attractive is an invitation to have it stolen.

To escape this fate we need to start talking about morality again. We cannot go on treating every crime as a sign that something else needs to be banned or that the state has failed and therefore needs to spend even more money.

As a first step, we could try saying that it is wrong to steal someone else's bicycle.


Simon Goldie said...

Excellent. I have been thinking a lot about knife crime, well many people have, recently and wanting to find some sort of response to all that has been said. I think you have done it for me!

HE Elsom said...

I don't think there's much of a causal or other logical relationship between what you have to do to avoid having stuff stolen, or enabling crime in other ways, and what we -- who? society? the government? parents? -- ought to do to raise people who aren't morally damaged enough to commit crime systematically. I try to respect others no matter what they wear or sound like, and I'll vote for and otherwise support policies that will help everyone grow up with moral integrity, but I'm still going to lock my bike pretty thoroughly.

I agree about knives, though. How does a retailer tell a sixteen-year-old catering student from a sixteen-year-old potential murderer?

boyandgirlscoutsdotcom said...

How interesting you should discuss this connection. I just wrote about the lack of knives with Boy Scouts in England. I never knew about this phenomenon until I was looking into an exchange story between my country, the USA, and yours. Personal responsibility is important, but that doesn't mean taking the blame for someone else's actions. I'm heading to camp with my Boy Scouts in the morning. Everyone is supposed to bring a knife. If you're interested, my blog post is:

dreamingspire said...

Remember "Wot's yours is mine and wot's mine is me own'? The self-centred child into whom notions of society and morality have to be instilled isn't by any means new. Its just that we have so many things these days, even the kids that we think of as poor.
We are going to try out street-based rental bikes here soon, just like the Paris scheme. One report in the press was that Paris has lost 7,000 of those bikes since the scheme started.

Paul Walter said...

Hello to you to Jonathan. Yes, of course, it is wrong to steal.

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of rhetoric from the police about how potential victims ought to just be more careful, given that they're hardly likely to, you know, find a police officer anywhere handy.

It's easier to harangue the victim - tell them to carry rape alarms, or dress in a certain way, or not talk back, or hide their belongings, or cower humbly in inadequate cycling provision - than to modify the behaviour of the frequently bullish, leery perpetrators. So I expect people's opinions are following both prevailing rhetoric and the path of least resistance.