The Labour Government has essentially continued down the Conservatives? rightward and repressive path. The restriction of access to legal aid, the abandonment of the right to jury trial in a wide range of cases, the fruitless pursuit of World War II war criminals, the attack on privacy - including CCTV in public places and the move towards internet surveillance - the tacit acceptance of the wholly counter-productive witch-hunt of paedophiles, the inhuman treatment of asylum seekers, the proposal to build up and retain a bank of DNA samples from those suspected of offences, curfews, and the abandonment of the principle of double jeopardy, make up a sad commentary on a once radical party.
Of course, recorded crime rose faster over the last ten years of the Tory Government than at any comparable period in history. We still have the highest ever ratio of police to population and the highest ever crime rate. It was arrogance of an astonishing order for the Conservatives to claim that they were the party of law and order in the face of the clearest evidence to the contrary. Despite manifest proof that draconian sentencing and harsh penal regimes have neither a deterrent effect nor contribute towards rehabilitation, the Conservatives persisted in pandering to public opinion, which believes the opposite, by countering each new crime of the moment by introducing even tougher penalties. Such blatant cynicism and disregard for the obvious in the pursuit of power demeaned the reputation of those who know better and debases a party that can rely on such effrontery. Ann Widdecombe, with her “something of the night about him” speech dishing of Michael Howard’s leadership chances, at least did the country a favour by ending the career of the most opportunistic Home Secretary in a long time.
The Big Issue, now sold weekly in many northern towns in addition to London, is the most visible innovation able to prove that constructive responses to homelessness have greater potential for success than repression and exhortation. With its associated practical initiatives it illustrates the Liberal belief that the voluntary sector is often the most fruitful source of innovation.
The only effective deterrent to crime is the high likelihood of being caught, a key aid to which is the active opposition of a neighbourhood to anti-social behaviour. The awareness that the identity of the burglar or thief or robber or worse is not only known but will always be willingly supplied to the police ensures the impracticality, if not the immorality, of crime. Traditionally most crime detection has been by the public and an increasing fear of reprisal and retaliation is undermining public confidence with disastrous consequences. Self-policing of the community by the community is crucial. Not in a narrowly repressive or capricious way but through a healthy and confident neighbourhood inspiring co-operative attitudes and inhibiting exploitation and viciousness. Crime thrives in the atmosphere of anonymity and fear that has been bred and planned into our communities over the past thirty years of foolish and illiberal development policies of both Labour and Conservative administrations in Whitehall and Town Hall. The wanton demolition of close knit communities and their replacement by often bizarre arrangements of houses, with a lack of communal facilities or even of any obvious focal point, has enabled criminal elements to thrive. It is important to commence policies for the longer term which will support strong neighbourhoods with facilities for community activities and action.
If Conservative cynicism was deplorable, Labour’s blinkered reductionism is almost as dangerous. Crime cannot be put down to social conditions quite so simplistically as Labour would pretend. Of course they play a part, as does the Thatcherite motto of having an eye to the main chance - and its leader’s highly significant incantation that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families” - but to over-emphasise social conditions denies both the element of individual culpability and the need to maintain and enhance those neighbourhood linkages that are vital for the promotion of the community’s highest aspirations.
Because it has an awareness of the centrality of human values in politics, and the role of the community in enhancing them, rather than being based on an economic imperative, Liberalism has always understood the need to assist rather than to retard the dynamism of the community. This view does not require an idealised view of individual motivation, indeed, Liberalism has the most rational view of the duality of human nature and of the competing tendencies towards both altruism and selfishness within each of us. However, even with the awareness that a local neighbourhood can all too often engender wildly illiberal prejudices, Liberals see the collective spirit of the community as providing the best guarantee of the promotion of the altruistic element within us and of the inhibition of selfishness.
At its best the Liberal philosophy of Community Politics is much more than a technique for winning local council seats and is a means of enabling the community to take increasing responsibility for its own affairs. To reverse the current trend towards a siege society in the face of increasing lawlessness will require an immense commitment on the part of those who care. In particular it requires a determination to identify with the community by living within it and sharing its life. At the moment virtually everyone who ‘serves’ those areas that have the worst social and physical conditions commutes to them. The doctor, the social worker, the teacher, and the politician usually live elsewhere, arrive first thing in the morning to tell everyone how to live and then dash back to their leafy suburbs. Even the shopkeeper and the church minister increasingly live away from their patch. The Community Constable, who is vitally important to the security of an area, invariably has far too big an area to cover to be able to have a sufficient personal effect on it and also often commutes to it. The rapid turnover of Community Constables is a further handicap: they need to be sufficiently long ‘in post’ to build up confidence within the community. It is the immersion in an area that comes from belonging to it by residence that is the key factor.
Even ‘good’ education has contributed to the disintegration of our urban communities. Educational ‘success’ has very often provided the means by which young people have been able to move away. Indeed the schools themselves have all too often fostered such an image of achievement. Good examination results have perforated society so that a handful of children can climb through the holes, leaving behind a community bereft of many of its natural leaders. An Economist article dating from the 1981 urban riots is still highly relevant and should be read in full. Nick Harmon, himself then a Brixton resident, wrote:
One common aspect of the riot areas is that all have suffered for decades because politicians and their planning advisers have removed from them their natural community leaders. Local councils have used central government funds to buy up, often compulsorily, anyone with a financial stake in the community - home-owners, shop-keepers, landlords, small businessmen - to add their property to the council’s land bank pending comprehensive redevelopment. Such individuals are the first to be offered the money and favourable housing nominations to move out of the area, if only because they are the most independent and mobile citizens. The effect has been to break the economic and social ties which bind the community together, ties which also help to police it.It is these ‘ties’, he argues, which are far more significant than the massive infrastructure investment which, he points out, has gone into these areas. In the same article Harmon writes about the “unofficial network of vigilance” of locally accepted figures of authority or “recognised people ‘occupying’ the street”. He goes on:
Without these people, policing is in effect an act of urban colonialism and mass hooliganism requires a police invasion to suppress it. It was this secondary control which. .. broke down in a number of cities.Planning policies, financial assistance to underpin key services - preferably by grant aid to voluntary bodies rather than direct council administration - community transport, recognition of the vital importance of premises run by the community, and democratic representative democracy at local level, are all ingredients of a Liberal policy for a secure, aware and relaxed society.
The Liberal society, and the Liberal community are no easy options. They demand considerable commitment from all their citizens and great sacrifice from their leaders. But there is no alternative. The choices are stark. Either we continue down the miserable cul-de-sac of the siege society in which every house and every flat has to be a fortress against the intruder, and in which people turn inwards on themselves and cease to believe in a future without anxiety. Or we have an outward looking community, confident of its ability at best to deter those who might seek to undermine it or at worst to know and identify those who break society’s vital code of personal privacy and security.
The latest panacea is the closed circuit television camera watching our every movement. There are already 150,000 and around a million elsewhere in the country, and the Labour government has put £150 million into their further provision by local authorities. We are regaled with newspaper stories of how the existence of CCTV assisted the detection of a particular crime. It is, of course, quite possible that a specific crime is resolved thanks to CCTV, but at what price? There is no evidence that CCTV overall contributes to the improvement of law and order, though there is support for the logical view that it contributes to a displacement of criminal activity to areas without surveillance cameras. The inevitable consequence of dependence on this technique is the presence of surveillance cameras everywhere. If followed, George Orwell’s nightmare would be only some twenty years late. A new £1.9m camera system in Liverpool will enable “Police and council officials to monitor almost every person and car leaving the city centre”. To depend on CCTV is to deal with symptoms rather than the disease itself, and deflects attention from positive policies.. There is no ultimate solution to crime and to anti-social behaviour without tackling its causes and without inhibiting it by community pressure and community policing.
It needs to be stated clearly that, even if CCTV were shown to be highly effective, Liberals would continue to oppose its presence root and branch. The presence of surveillance cameras in public places is an unacceptable and intolerable intrusion into the every day life of every citizen. The potential for misuse is palpably clear to anyone who knows their way around the internet - or indeed their way to video stores where tapes compiled from CCTV are sold under the counter. And, even taking the pragmatic argument at face value, the cameras are a miserable and counterproductive substitute for genuine community involvement in the prevention and detection of crime. The Liberal imperative is that “in all spheres it puts freedom first”; in their active support for surveillance cameras in public places, the Liberal Democrats demonstrate their distance from this essential Liberal value. Not surprising in a book remarkably weak on civil liberties as a whole, William Wallace advocated “the increased use of closed-circuit television” in his 1997 election book Why Vote Liberal Democrat? Why indeed.
The breakdown of law and order does not arrive on one single night on
each of our doorsteps fully-fledged in all its malign vigour. It creeps
up imperceptibly and incrementally. It begins with litter left in the streets
and then graffiti on shop walls. Next comes the mindless vandalism of the
smashed bus shelter windows and petty theft. If these become commonplace
it is but a short step to burglary and robbery. ‘Zero tolerance’ is a highly
plausible but deeply flawed slogan. It fails to differentiate between wilful
culpability and naïve mischief, and has no understanding of the need
for police discretion and judgement. It fills penal institutions with the
mad and the sad, as well as the bad, and gives the prison staff an impossible
task, which very quickly drifts from rehabilitation to containment. There
is no time left to dawdle on these matters. Every urban community, and
many rural communities, will already recognise how far down this spiral
they have slipped. The naïve and cynical mental straitjackets of Labour
and Conservative have failed. The future life of our cities depends on
the Liberal strategy of building upwards from the strong neighbourhood
and the confident community.