Last year, I had a debate with my brother Peter at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (His contributions to the current argument, which are among the most cogent being offered by anyone on the British right, can be found on his blog at London's Mail on Sunday.) Curtain-raising these questions, Peter led off with some recent crime statistics and accounts of criminal incidents that were quite hair-raising. He basically challenged me to say whether I would have believed such stories, or ever expected them to come true, in the more innocent England of our boyhood.
Without resorting too glibly to the Dickens/Mayhew/Engels defense cited above, I found that I could. Vicious crime was constantly spoken of in undertones—and the names of "bad" neighborhoods in quite respectable towns were likewise whispered about—by people who quite genuinely feared the underclass and in particular its violent children. In more famously "bad" cities, like Glasgow and Liverpool and Belfast, one heard credible reports of whole streets and areas and housing estates where it wasn't worth chancing a visit. (These same districts of urban blight, as I hastened to remind the audience for our debate, tended also to be the setting of very dogged traditional, religious, and family values, often expressed by Protestant-Catholic warfare of a sort that was later to mount a real challenge to the British state.)
Then there were the successive panics about feral youth. In the mid-'60s, street and beachfront clashes between Mods and Rockers petrified the respectable and set magistrates competing with each other in the stiffness of their sentences for fans of the Who. Pure panic in the early 1970s effectively banned Stanley Kubrick's version of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. More recent was Britain's most disgusting export as well as a poisonous recreation: the mobilization of huge squads of ugly drunks at soccer matches. More recently, though, the introduction of mass CCTV has allowed an amazing degree of crowd control even at this level.
So how much fresh bad news is there really under the sun? Friends of mine tend to stress the laws that are never enforced, the grinning bullies who walk free, the waste of police time on politically correct trivia, and the general "defining down" of unacceptable behavior. But the only really new development, without historical analog, is the emergence of gangs and even small-scale "communities" that feel they owe no civic or political or in many cases religious loyalty to the state or its institutions. These groups and areas often detest each other as much as they do the wider society: There has been graphic violence, for example, between Afro-Caribbean and Asian Muslim factions. Clearly, also, these are the sort of rank, polluted waters in which white supremacist and jihadist groups can find their fishing grounds. I remind you that all of this was already an extremely clear and present danger, long before the all-purpose expression "the cuts" was being used for all-purpose purposes.