Theodore Dalrymple

Global warning | 11 August 2007

You — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I — can’t get away anywhere from crime and criminality.

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You — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I — can’t get away anywhere from crime and criminality.

You — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I — can’t get away anywhere from crime and criminality.

I was walking down a country lane in one of the most beautiful shires of England. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the lambs were gambolling in the fields, the trees were decked out in the tender green of spring, my dog was at my side: for a moment, I felt almost glad to be alive. Then I met the local magistrate, who was also out walking his dog.

When two men in their late fifties meet, their first talk is of the wickedness — the unprecedented wickedness — of youth (lament being the consolation of age). Then they turn on the government.

The magistrate, a man in appearance whom the French would call a typical rosbif, told me with indignation the latest government wheeze to mislead the public about the prevalence of crime in Britain. Henceforth, shoplifters who steal less than £200 worth of goods will be summarily fined £80, just as if they had parked on double yellow lines, and their crime not recorded anywhere.

So the message of the government to the shoplifters of Britain is enrichissez-vous.

As it happens, I was looking over the crime statistics in the Home Office’s Research Publication No. 217 the other day, which investigated the costs of crime to the country for the year 2000. At the bottom of every column was the total, save for the column indicating the number of crimes: the figure was so appalling, more than 60,000,000 per year, that is to say more than five times the figure usually given for general public consumption, that it was deemed better to conceal it by omission, in the full knowledge that journalists would never do the addition themselves.

Half the 60,000,000 crimes were shop-lifting: confirming my old dictum that, pace Napoleon, the English are a nation of shoplifters. But by removing shoplifting from the realm of crime altogether, the crime rate has been halved at a stroke.

Of course, I quite understand the predicament of the government: it wants to appeal simultaneously to the readers of the Guardian and of the Daily Mail. It appeals to the latter by having created a new criminal offence every working day for the last ten years, and to the former by letting criminals, poor abused lambs that they are, make a profit.

Not long ago I had occasion to look into the life and work of Dr William Farr, the great medical statistician of the Victorian era, and the deputy registrar-general of births, deaths and marriages who for many years wrote the incisive introductory essays to the annual report of the registrar-general. Dr Farr, the son of a farm labourer, looked like an Old Testament prophet straight out of Shropshire, a man of iron integrity. No spin for him: just God’s honest truth.

The Victorians were a bit funny about sex, no doubt, but I think they were better able in other respects to look unflinchingly at themselves and their society.

Would things now improve with a change of government? I fear not: for the corruption has entered our very souls. That means that the old Romanian peasant adage now applies in Britain as in the Balkans: a change of rulers is the joy of fools.