'Twasn't Ever Thus
December 18, 2002
by Theodore Dalrymple
LONDON -- Britain is now the world leader in very little, with the single possible exception of crime.
Recent figures published by the U.N. show that Britain is now among the most crime-ridden countries in the world: Its citizens are much more likely to be attacked or robbed on the street, or have their houses burgled, than their counterparts in, say, Russia or South Africa, let alone the U.S. Everyday experience in Britain is quite sufficient to establish that we now live in a deeply criminalized society.
For a middle-class person like me who grew up in the Britain of the 1950s, this is all very startling. It was then so safe a country that one was inclined to suppose that criminality was as foreign as food that tasted of anything. One rather pitied foreigners their dishonesty and thuggishness because it was something that, being foreigners, they couldn't really help. Even the few native criminals that we had were, at heart, gentlemen: when caught by our efficient and upstanding constabulary (and no words ever settled the hash of criminals more decisively than those to the effect that Scotland Yard had been called in), our criminals always said, ever so sportingly, "It's a fair cop, guv."
Less than half a century later, many people no more venture out after dark than Transylvanian peasants would go wandering while Dracula was at large, and once the sun has gone down, there is not an old person to be seen in public in Britain. Taxi drivers carry ground chilies to squirt in the eyes of their passengers in case they turn nasty, and martial-arts instructors offer their services to hospital staff to protect them from the aggression of patients and their relatives. In short, the British have gone from being civil to savage in less than a single lifetime.
Perhaps even more startling is the complete paralysis of British society in the face of this terrible breakdown. In the war against civility, the savages have it all their own way. No one would dare to correct even seven-year-old children in the street or on a bus, for fear that they carried knives. My prisoner patients often tell me that when they beat someone to a pulp, they were carrying out a "normal assault." The other day, a prisoner said to me, "I'm an innocent man: I just jumped the counter, took some money and ran away." And true enough, in much of Britain such behavior is comparatively innocent. Anything short of the rape of little girls is considered trivial. Once I asked a prisoner why he was in prison, and he replied, "I'm here on a poxy little murder charge." This, I need hardly point out, is a world away from "It's a fair cop, guv."
The response of the British liberal intelligentsia and the political class to the crime wave that has engulfed our society makes a jellyfish look solid. Witness the British middle class in full retreat. Every conceivable argument has been used to avoid acknowledging the painful reality of what we have so heedlessly wrought over so short a period. Some try to suggest that crime hasn't really increased, but that it is just more fully reported now than ever before. Others venture that there is more theft because people have more possessions (the first time wealth rather than poverty has been blamed for crime). And so on, ad infinitum.
As the politicians dither and bicker, I am reminded of the Romanian peasant proverb: The whole village is on fire, but grandmother wants to finish combing her hair.
At the root of the British inability to confront the problem is snobbery. There is a reluctance on the part of the upper echelons of society to believe that the lower echelons are fully human, and therefore responsible for their own acts and decisions. No discussion with a British liberal about the growing incivility, criminality and violence of British life is complete without reference to Hogarth's Gin Lane, the implication being that 'twas ever thus. This, of course, is nonsense. But it does establish that the British liberal intelligentsia believes the lower classes are genetically and irredeemably, utter scum.
Theodore Dalrymple is the pen name of the physician Anthony Daniels, a contributing editor of City Journal.
©2002 The Wall Street Journal