6 March 2019

Is Glaswegian tough love the key to tackling knife crime?


I hold no particular brief for Gavin Williamson. The Secretary of State for Defence rather too often gives the impression of a man dazzled by his own brilliance. Nevertheless, even Gavin Williamson can be traduced. This morning he finds himself in social media’s pillory for suggesting that the army is “ready to respond” to any request for help in combating the scourge — and the surge — of knife-related crime that has become all too apparent in London and other English cities. The armed forces, he said, “always stand ready to help any government department”. Which, of course, they do.

But Williamson was responding to remarks made by Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, during a radio interview in which she said she found it “hard to imagine” requesting the assistance of the army but that there might be a role for the military to play in certain support roles: “I don’t exclude it, I really don’t,” she said. “If there are things that the military would offer for us then of course I would think about it. Not to carry out policing functions, but other supplementary functions.”

Dick’s remarks were in turn a response to the suggestion made by Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, that perhaps there might be a role for the military in responding to a situation that has swiftly become one of crisis proportions.

In other words, Williamson might still have been better-off speaking more carefully but he said very little and was responding to suggestions made by other people without actually endorsing them or promising to act upon them. The public duties of the Coldstream and Irish Guards are not going to be shifted from Buckingham Palace to the streets of Hackney and Streatham.

That it has come to this is a reminder that these are febrile times in which there are powerful incentives to overreact to everything, characterising everything in black and white and everyone as heroes or, more frequently, villains and, worse than that, villainous idiots. Little of this is healthy.

But crime, and especially youth crime, is complicated. Too complicated, perhaps, for a political moment craving simplicity. Take, for instance, the now widely-publicised success Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, has enjoyed in reducing knife crime.

The work of the specialist Violence Reduction Unit first established by the Labour-Lib Dem coalition in 2005, and subsequently supported by the SNP administration, has become something from which other places can learn. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, wants to copy it; Cressida Dick, like many others, has been to Glasgow to learn how the rate of serious knife-crime in the city was reduced by more than half. In 2005, there were 137 murders in Scotland; last year there were 59.

And there is indeed much to learn from Glasgow’s success even if that learning must also be tempered by an appreciation that the VRU, in conjunction with Police Scotland, has not eliminated knife crime. Reducing it is no small thing, however, not least because any successful attempt at doing so means changing a culture, not simply removing people from the streets. And culture is a stubborn thing.

Advocates of the Glasgow approach suggest knife-crime, and especially youth knife-crime, should be treated as a “public health” issue. This is fine as far as it goes, though “social health” would be a better, more accurate, term and one that hints at the complexity of the issue because here, as is so often the case, everything really is connected. Family breakdown, school exclusions, the consequences of a life lived in care, social deprivation, poor life prospects, the inadequate provision of safe recreational space and activities, meagre mental health resources and so much else all have their part to play.

But so, even in Glasgow, does policing. The initial work of the VRU was accompanied by a significant increase in stop-and-search as well as by an increasing the minimum sentences imposed on those found guilty of knife-related crimes. While it is not possible to lock everyone up — and sending young men to prison invites further problems in due course — the Glasgow approach had a significant criminal justice component.

The use of stop and search proved controversial in Glasgow and new guidelines have significantly reduced its use; it must be a matter of significantly greater controversy in London where the practice comes heavily freighted with racial baggage. In London, doubtless police numbers are also part of this story but if so they are only a small part of it but because police numbers may be measured easily, it is easy to assume that what can be most easily measured must be what is most important. I am not convinced this is the case.

Most of all, however, the Glasgow approach had something else at its heart: accountability and personal responsibility. The VRU showed young gang members the consequences of their actions and invited them to rethink their lives. Far from being a “soft touch” approach, the Glasgow method has been deeply moralistic, even if it has generally preferred to eschew such language. In essence, young men were asked if they really wanted to keep living like this. Caught at the right moment of despair, the answer was often “No”.

The VRU approach supports rehabilitation but it also confronts young offenders. It is a painstaking, but tough, process and one based, at root, on the concepts of shame and remorse. Only once these are admitted can progress be made. In that respect, treating knife-crime is not unlike treating other addictions and anyone who has any experience of that can understand this is an approach that is hard, not soft. In many ways it is harder than the alternative, tabloid-pleasing, approach of simply slinging ever greater numbers of young men into prison.

Changing the culture so carrying a knife attracts stigma rather than being a proof of macho bravado is not easy. And it takes time. In Glasgow, where again the job remains incomplete because the social problems which encourage lawlessness remain present, it has taken a decade to bear real fruit. The work goes on because it is a never-ending project but the better news is that the work can make a difference. It can only do so, however, if you appreciate that everything is connected. That means it is complicated and perhaps too complicated for our present kind of politics.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.