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Zach Johnstone: Britain is broken - and those who say it isn't must look at it from a new perspective

Picture 9 Zach Johnstone is a Conservative activist who is reading Politics at the University of Warwick and has previously worked in Parliament.

As I made my way through the hordes of frenzied commuters last Monday morning in Victoria Station, I came across something which startled me. It wasn’t the commemorative flowers; the police presence in the station; the board appealing for information regarding the arbitrary murder of a teenage boy the night before by a gang of youths.

Rather, what shocked me was that the presence of these things did not really shock me at all. Having gone to school in Slough and grown up in London, the recurrent nature of incidents such as this has punctuated my life. A year ago, unprovoked, I found myself surrounded and subsequently beaten by a gang in a local park. Just a few months later, I witnessed the same happen to another friend, resulting in severe lacerations to his face.

Such offhand examples exist in their dozens; they have become a way of life in some areas. However, what I find to be just as alarming as the regularity of the attacks themselves is that even today, the problem is dismissed as hyperbole – the stuff of fantasy existing only in the minds of those whose lives have been disproportionately blighted by such exceptional occurrences. Britain is fine and the debate is superfluous in the context of social policy.

A recent Economist article claims just this. Even excluding the disturbingly dismissive opening subtitle to the article which claims that it has “become fashionable to say that British society is in a mess”, the piece rejects the notion that Britain has become a ‘broken’ country. The logic, whilst not acceptable, is explicable: the use of quantitative data illustrating minimal change, nay, decreases in crime levels across the UK simply do not corroborate the idea that Britain is broken.

The article made use of figures which suggest that alcohol consumption is on the decline, as is car theft and other burglary-related crime. It would have us believe that Britain is convalescing from a culture of crime and misdeed; that the evidence not only points to there not being a broken society, but to there being a society which is actually on the up. To take this article at face value, then, is to accept that ours is a country in which offences are becoming less and less frequent, with no trace of brokenness to be found. I believe this reasoning, as I shall now expound, to be fundamentally flawed for two main reasons inter alia.

The first is the cavalier attitude taken towards what we would call ‘public perception’. Indeed, it is true that merely perceiving society to be broken does not make it so – people do of course see such things on the news, heightening not only their awareness but also their trepidation. However, I suggest that this is a far more marginal opinion than articles such as that in the Economist would care to acknowledge.

Perception is important principally because it demonstrates that for all the hard facts pertaining to rates of crime, people are feeling less and less safe. In other words, the quantitative has subjugated the qualitative to such an extent that unreported incidences such as abuse in the street or disorderly groups of teens visiting fear upon schoolchildren simply do not exist to those who base their opinion of society on crime figures. With such a parochial definition of ‘broken’, the picture is still very much a black and white one.

There is a gap between what researchers observe and what those living in such areas feel. This first issue feeds directly into the second: the focus of the intellectual media is completely awry. A ‘broken’ society is not just one in which crime is on the increase; it is one in which societal factors coalesce to create an environment in which people no longer feel safe. It is not enough to say ‘people feel more unsafe, but they aren’t, so that’s that’. There should be a desire to reconcile this discrepancy which I am convinced lies in a lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of the term ‘broken’ outside of an academic context.

It runs deep into the shift in culture; the current generation of under-25s – in which I am very much included - has been blighted by an incontrovertible shift towards the commercialisation of gang culture. In some parts of London it is a hellish experience to wait at a bus stop at night; shops are inaccessible owing to threatening crowds lining the doorway. Attitudinal concerns are disregarded because they cannot be quantified: it is here, I believe, that the mistake is being made.

An incorporation of public perception coupled with attempts to understand why people feel the way they do (rather than an immediate dismissal of the credibility of such an approach) would enrich the picture of British society today. Not incorporating the terrifying atmospheres in which many find themselves each day into the societal debate merely because they cannot be neatly contained in crime statistics is ignorant, and is symptomatic of an approach which misses the point entirely. It is time this perspective shifted.


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