Violent crime on a downward turn in the UK
With less violence and fewer murders the UK is now much more peaceful than ten years ago, and it is a similar story in other developed countries. This is great news, but why is it happening?
Stories of violence seem to fill the UK news so often that it is hard to believe the country has become more peaceful. But it is true. And it has been happening for more than a decade.
A new study of hospital emergency departments shows a 12% fall in violent injuries last year. This is part of a long-term trend supported by other independent sources, including police records and the National Crime Survey, which interviews people about their experiences of crime.
And this decline in violence is taking place not just in Britain, but in almost every developed nation, including the United States and across Europe.
This is something we should all be pleased about, but the global picture makes an explanation much harder to find. Politicians like to believe their views on law and order make a difference. But the variety of policies in different countries makes that hard to accept. For example, the USA has a strong faith in prisons and long sentences for offenders; by contrast Denmark only locks up its most dangerous criminals. Yet both have seen a similar decline in violent crime.
Other reasons have been put forward. Alcohol often fuels violence, so a decline in consumption could mean fewer fights. But although it is true that alcohol consumption in the UK is falling, that is not the case in the rest of Europe.
Another theory says the rise in crime in the late 20th century was caused by lead in petrol. The additive made car engines run more efficiently, but had powerful toxic effects on those who breathed in the fumes. Exposure to lead during pregnancy reduced the head circumference of infants. In children and adults, it caused headaches, decreased IQ and sometimes led to aggressive behaviour.
Lead in petrol was banned in the 1990s and soon after crime rates began to fall. Other scientists dismiss this as coincidence. They say we should pay more attention to social issues, like poverty and unemployment, but this too is unconvincing. Widespread unemployment in southern Europe since 2008 has not affected the fall in violence.
So are humans losing their taste for violence?
Love and peace
There’s still a long way to go, some say, but yes. An influential scientist, Steven Pinker, has suggested that society has evolved from one based on competition, in which aggression brings results, to one that works on co-operation. Better global communication helps with this.
Others disagree. Violence is still hard-wired into us. We are not so far removed from our ape ancestors that aggression is no longer considered an option in any conflict, personal or national. Ten years of safer streets is one thing, but within living memory tens of millions were killed during the second world war.
- Do you feel that you live in a peaceful country? Why / why not?
- “Aggression is an integral part of man’s nature.” Do you agree?
- In groups, make a list of reasons for the worldwide decline in violence. Compare your ideas with the rest of the class.
- Choose a decade within the last century and research its figures for violent acts of crime on the domestic scene in the UK or your own country. How do they compare with current figures? What do you think are the main reasons for any differences?
Some People Say...
“Non-violence doesn’t always work, but violence never does.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Will violence ever disappear from British life?
- There will always be some level of violence, but great changes in social behaviour do come about in surprisingly short spaces of time. The British public in the 19th century became disgusted by things which it once saw as entertainments, like bear-baiting or public hangings. Within the last 30 years other activities have also become largely unacceptable such as smoking in public buildings or drink-driving.
- Is the decline in violence the same throughout the UK?
- No. There is a definite link between levels of violence and levels of prosperity. Research shows that the 17 most violent areas in England were all London boroughs which have areas of extreme poverty. By contrast, relatively affluent, rural areas tend to suffer fewer violent crimes.
- In the UK, binge drinking has become less frequent, and the proportion of young people who do not drink alcohol at all has risen sharply. Also, after decades in which alcohol has become cheaper, it has become less affordable since 2008.
- After the financial crash of 2008 and the crises over the euro, unemployment rose steeply in Portugal, Spain and Greece. Young people under 25 are still particularly badly off with almost 60% of them without work in Spain and Greece.
- Steven Pinker
- The Canadian experimental psychologist is a professor at Harvard University. His book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Penguin 2011) explained his theory of why human violence was in decline. He believes that empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason are making us more co-operative as a species and less inclined to aggression.