“We didn’t have televisions.”
This exchange took place in 1986 in Huashan, which means Flower Hill and was then a farming village in Hubei Province about 15 miles east of Wuhan. I had gone there, escorted by Communist Party officials as relations were beginning to thaw with the west. Since then Huashan has grown almost unrecognisably into a major modern city.
For the most part, offending levels rise when more of us get sucked in and fade when we don’t.
This is key to understanding why crime ebbs and flows – and it is the major explanation for why crime fell.
It has long been known that some ‘debut’ crimes are much more habit-forming than others (Robert Svensson. ‘Strategic Offences in the Criminal Career Context’, British Journal of Criminology, 2002, Vol 42, pp 395–411), and these early forays into offending have since been shown to be gateways not just into chronic behaviour problems but also, for some, into violent criminal careers.
For example, Home Office researchers who tracked over 200,000 offenders for almost a decade found most kept out of trouble, about half reoffended for a while before desisting, but five per cent became ‘chronic’ lawbreakers (defined as being caught more than fifteen times). There were strong predictive factors: those who started young and committed burglary, robbery or vehicle crime were three times more likely to become chronic and more serious offenders than older starters or than those first-timers who were caught for other types of crime, including sex crimes or public order offences. Thus as situations changed over the years, and burglary, robbery and car crime were reduced, we might expect to see subsequent falls in more serious and violent crimes – which is indeed what happened. (Natalie Owen & Christine Cooper, ‘The Start of a Criminal Career: Does the Type of Debut Offence Predict Future Offending? Research Report 77,’ Home Office, London, November 2013.) [https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/261222/horr77.pdf]
The more we can cut entry-level crime the more we can expect subsequent falls in more serious offending.
The willingness to see the world as goodies and baddies is so deep-seated that psychologists have a name for it: fundamental attribution error.
The term ‘fundamental error attribution’ was coined by Professor Lee Ross, a social psychologist at Stanford who was curious at how people consistently put other people’s behaviour down to personality rather than circumstance. In an experiment speakers were told to argue for or against Fidel Castro on the basis of a coin toss. People in the audience made strong judgements about ‘what that person was really like’ depending on which side they spoke on in the debate; significantly their opinions persisted strongly even when they were told the speakers had simply been acting on instructions.
Until 200 years ago, deeply rooted theories about disease restricted the average European to the life expectancy of the Stone Age; and woe betide anyone who could afford a doctor, since the cure invariably involved inducing vomiting, draining blood or forcing wounds open to stimulate pus.
The Galenic tradition reasoned that disease was cause by the imbalance of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, a supposition that probably pre-dated Hippocrates and which intuited that human personalities are dictated by these four ‘humours’, so that, for example, dominance of the phlegm leads to stoicism (hence phlegmatic). Galen was actually a skilled anatomist who dissected animals on a prodigious scale and made several important discoveries, but sadly his reputation as a scientist entrenched an unscientific – and wrong – presumption which dominated medicine for almost two millennia. One example of the damage caused by Galenic tradition is the treatment of wounds. Doctors would use trephines, scrapers and other instruments to expose an injury. This so-called ‘wet healing’ was intended to promote ‘laudable pus’ but in the 1580s a Spanish surgeon, Bartolomé Hildago de Agüero , experimented with ‘dry’ methods, cleaning the injury, removing damaged tissue, and closing the wound before covering it with bandages. He then compared his results with hospital registers and found 3 per cent of his patients died compared to 50 per cent receiving traditional treatment.
At least Galenism was an intellectual advance from the beliefs that seem to have dominated until about 2,500 years ago when it was widely assumed disease was the result of a curse or punishment from the gods. Eastern medicine was dominated by primitive assumptions similar to those in the west, except that instead of positing humours which related to temperament, physicians believed in energy channels which related to the environment and to astrology. They too often employed bloodletting, which was widely modified into acupuncture.
The endurance of these traditions was extraordinary in the face of scientific discoveries which challenged their implausibility, but in the absence of randomised trials the recovery of any patient could be interpreted as a cure – a delusion which is still found in complementary and alternative medicine today.
Tony Blair cunningly appealed to softies and disciplinarians alike in his promise to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. It was merely equivocation, of course, and as I know from a private discussion with him, he really had no answers.
When Labour came to power in 1997 it had only slogans in place of crime reduction policy. David Miliband – who quickly grasped the central ideas in this book – arranged for me to have a private meeting with Tony Blair to persuade him there was a new approach. But Mr Blair put on what Margaret Jay, his Leader of the Lords, once called his ‘garden expression’, meaning his thoughts had wandered outside. Over the course of three quarters of an hour he showed not the slightest interest. Perhaps it was personal (Alistair Campbell his Svengali spokesman wandered in and glowered at me – the two of us have never had much respect for each other). Perhaps energised by an election he was more interested in rhetoric than nuts and bolts. Perhaps the barrister in him recoiled from an approach to crime which downgraded lawyers. Conceivably it was the Christian in him that remained optimistic that sinners could be redeemed. But it seemed like I just bored him. He never again sought my opinion on anything.