Kenny MacAskill: The reasons behind the remarkable fall in homicides

If we are to tackle murderous violence, we must build a safe, hopeful and equal society, writes Kenny MacAskill

A woman brings a flower to the scene of a fatal stabbing in Hackney, east London
A woman brings a flower to the scene of a fatal stabbing in Hackney, east London
A woman brings a flower to the scene of a fatal stabbing in Hackney, east London

It’s little wonder that London’s looking north for ideas on tackling violence. As shown this week, the reduction in homicides in Scotland has been remarkable, especially when placed in an international context, with a fall of around 60 per cent over the past ten years.

Scotland, though, can’t rest on its laurels as violent crime still remains too high and knife-carrying has been creeping up. The progress that has been made was achieved in a variety of ways but primarily through a recognition that it couldn’t be achieved through law enforcement alone. As the Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) correctly analysed, violence was and is a public health problem. It requires to be solved in our communities not just through our courts.

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Violence is also a cultural issue and violence begets violence. The idea that simply ramping up the forces of law and order and tooling up the courts to enforce it doesn’t work. If that was the solution then the United States would be a peaceful haven given the firepower of its police and the draconian powers of its courts, which it most certainly isn’t. Of course, London isn’t Scotland and the sheer scale and diversity of the place increase the challenges that there are. Racial issues are far more significant and police and community relations much poorer. It won’t be easy and not everything that was applied in Scotland can be replicated as a result, but lessons can be still learned and actions can be taken.

There’s not one single cause for the recent spike in knife and violent crime in London. Police numbers will be a factor and it’s disingenuous of the Home Secretary to suggest otherwise. But, other issues will likewise have fuelled it from the closure of youth and community groups to the drugs trade or social media.

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So, there won’t be a single solution, though an increased police presence is necessary, not only to allow officers to do their job but to reassure the public. Pressures have increased through terrorism and other challenges with community policing bearing the brunt of the cuts. Yet, it’s in that unsung aspect that some of the solution lies – restoring trust and building links where it’s currently fragile and, in other parts, broken. New laws may have a place to close gaps in knife sales but frankly that’s a side issue and you have to question why that wasn’t addressed long ago.

It’s on other issues – beyond more police and new laws – that action is needed and that’s where some of the successful measures used in Scotland can be adapted for London. Partnership working was essential and prevention, education and offering opportunity were equally vital. A visible police presence was still a part of it, as was stop-and-search allied with tough sentences for those the judiciary viewed as being of evil intent or dangerous. However, mandatory sentences were eschewed, leaving the courts discretion to avoid imprisoning the foolish or scared.

What drove the policy – whether through the VRU, Medics Against Violence (MAV) or by other organisations including the Scottish Prison Service and No Knives Better Lives (NKBL) – was working out why it was happening and then providing solutions. Research showed that most people who carried a knife did so because they were scared, rather than bad. Fear of being stabbed trumped fear of being caught. A strategy of reassurance that others weren’t carrying was brought in. Many took knives as they thought it would protect them and the outstanding MAV showed that there was no safe way to stab someone and knives could never be a defensive weapon.

I recall asking if celebrities should be brought in, from footballers to rock stars. More fool me, as again, the evidence showed that was futile and what resonated was testimony from former young offenders who’d been there, done that and got the prison t-shirt. They were slightly older than than the new generation, who viewed them with a mixture of awe, fear or even admiration. The message “don’t follow me” was what worked.

Likewise, lectures from police and politicians were futile but asking them to consider their mothers who might have to grieve for them at a graveside or while they were in jail hit home.

All those lessons and messages can be adapted and will help. But there’s another factor that applies here in Scotland, as it does down in London, and that’s inequality. As Justice Secretary when the financial crash occurred in 2008, I was briefed that increased poverty would see crime rise, but it hasn’t. There’s a clear link between areas of deprivation and offending, but poor people remain much more often the victims of crime than the perpetrators of it. But, growing inequality will increase crime, of that I am certain. Visiting London a few weeks ago, I was wandering aimlessly just killing time in South London. Cheek by jowl with poor and run-down areas, new apartments were springing up that would cost a lifetime’s salary of locals to buy.

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I was minded of a story a friend told me when he’d been researching a movie in Glasgow. Asking young guys why they risked jail with petty and more serious crime, an expensive car drove by which they identified as being owned by a local criminal who also had a Spanish timeshare and other trappings of wealth. Unskilled, low-waged or benefit-dependent, they said it was their only chance of acquiring them, ‘so why not?’

As the rich get richer and the poor get left behind, some of those who want a share of the opulence they see all about, will seek to take it whatever way they can. It’ll be starker and harsher in London but will also apply here. It’s not poverty but inequality that will increase crime as it afflicts our society in myriad 00other ways.

Tackling violent crime therefore requires more than law and order, it requires hope and opportunity for all.