Bruce Anderson

New laws are not going to make us safer

New laws are not going to make us safer

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There is a contrast between John Monckton and almost everyone who has written about his murder. He was better prepared for his death than they were. He believed in divine grace and in eternal life. He was certain that the victories of evil are transient and that good will ultimately prevail; that death shall have no dominion. He knew that his Redeemer liveth. John Monckton had lived in charity. He died in hope and in faith.

Those of us in the valley of the shadow of the death of faith have no such comfort. This is part of the reason for the intensity of the response to Mr Monckton’s death. To those who believe that life is not a dress rehearsal but the first and final performance, such a premature death is hideous. Though it is not a thought which we care to dwell on, we know that le dernier act est sanglant — but not, surely, as early as 49.

Yet the emotions unleashed by John Monckton’s murder cannot solely be explained by the collapse of teleology into longevity. His stab wounds heightened fear and dramatised vulnerability. Send not to know for whom the sirens screech. Next time, it could be for thee. The crime laid bare the failure of the authorities in Britain today.

In the hierarchy of rights, the right to order yields precedence only to the right to life. No right, including the right to life, can be taken for granted in the absence of order. In a modern context, this means safe streets and secure homes. But that is a right which hardly anyone in Britain now enjoys. In some areas, the criminal has dominion.

This is not inevitable. If we can send space probes to Mars and penetrate the mystery of the subatomic particle, why should the crime problem in London be so much worse than it was a century ago? There is a simple answer. We are suffering from a failure of will, intellect and policing.

But not of law, despite the government’s attempts to persuade us that the new laws in the latest Queen’s Speech would make us safer. That is nonsense. We already have plenty of laws. In a phrase originally used about the Middle Ages, contemporary Britain is good at law but not so hot on order. None of the additional laws which the government is advocating would be of more than marginal assistance in the battle for order.

The same is true of the Private Member’s Bill proposed by the Tory MP, Col Patrick Mercer, to strengthen the right of householders to defend themselves against intruders. There is a good case for passing it, in order to clarify the law. At present, the householder is entitled to use reasonable force to defend himself. Under the new Bill, no offence would have been committed unless the force were grossly disproportionate. That is a preferable wording, but it would make little difference in practice. Unless grossly disproportionate force is used, juries are already reluctant to convict.

Nor is there any reason to believe that the proposed change would have prevented the imprisonment of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot a fleeing criminal in the back. If that is not grossly disproportionate, what is? Even in most American states, Mr Martin would have had grave difficulty in securing a not guilty verdict.

Pat Mercer’s Bill might deter the Crown Prosecution Service from bringing the cases which currently end in an acquittal. Although that is well and good, it is not going to transform household safety. Nor would the remedy proposed by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens. He seemed to be suggesting that householders would be wise to invest in a baseball bat. Those burly enough to use such a weapon successfully probably already possess some effective blunt instrument. Wrested away from weaker hands, the baseball bat would merely enhance the burglar’s armoury.

If we want all victims of burglary to be able to defend themselves, there is only one solution. In most American states, householders are allowed to have guns and use them against menacing intruders. In these states, the burglary rate is much lower than in the UK, because house-breaking is simply too dangerous a profession.

Why should armed householders not have a similar effect in Britain? Yet most of us would still prefer the state to have a monopoly of fire-armed force, at least in urban areas. We have not abandoned all hope in the police.

That might rapidly change, at least in London, if we are to judge by a letter which the new Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, sent to the London Evening Standard on Tuesday. It is worth digging out, for as an example of pompous complacency by a senior policeman, it is unsurpassed since the days when Sherlock Holmes was making mock of Lestrade and his fellows in the pages of Conan Doyle.

Sir Ian is more at home consorting with sociologists than catching criminals. When he means robbery, he refers to ‘acquisitive crime’. But he makes it clear where his priorities lie. ‘I have argued for years that we must absolutely beware of creating ghettoes of affluence behind iron gates.’ Why should we beware? If John Monckton had lived behind such gates, he might still be alive. If Londoners despair of protection from the police — on burglary, almost all do — it is natural that they should seek their own defences. Confronted by his own force’s failure, Ian Blair demands equality of misery. It is unlikely that anyone will heed him. Indeed, if he continues in this vein, he will be acting as the marketing manager for the firms which build secure housing estates.

It often seems as if the police are either promoting the wrong people or failing to recruit the right ones. There is a failure of leadership, which will not be rectified by requiring ambitious policemen to attend conferences and prattle in socio-babble. The current structure of British policing still owes a great deal to Sir Robert Peel. After more than a century and a half, it may be time for a fundamental re-examination, to ensure that we have the right policemen, properly organised and led, with good pay and high morale, to deal with crime.

That is not impossible. Around half of all crimes are committed by a quarter of a million males between the ages of 15 and 24. Given the power of modern computers, why should all their names not be on police files within six months, so that their activities can be monitored? If we add in their siblings and elders, we are still only dealing with about one and a half million people. Equipped with a proper police force, the rest of us should be able to deal with such a small criminal underclass, without having to buy guns. If 50 million law-abiding Britons are too wet to cope with the criminal minority, we might as well give up and apply to be the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.