The following are axiomatic, right?
- Britain is one of a number of 'broken' societies in which civilised life is being rapidly eroded by steadily rising crime.
- Knife crime is a particularly serious problem and it is fair to talk in terms of an epidemic of these kinds of offences.
- Central government, local government and the police have combined to wage a 'war' on hard-pressed motorists, reaching for ever more draconian financial penalties in order to raise revenue.
The thing is, none of these statements are true. Last summer, the Office for National Statistics noted that by 2010, levels of crime in England and Wales had fallen to their lowest levels for thirty years. It was further noted, however, that two-thirds of people surveyed believed that crime was in fact becoming an ever more serious problem. The biggest gap between reality and public perception was demonstrated in the area of knife crime. The same study revealed that the murder rate is falling and that gun crime has fallen by 36% since it peaked in 2005-06. The report also showed that fixed penalty fines issued for motoring offences had halved since 2005. Overall, in 2009-10, crime levels in England and Wales were at their lowest since the British Crime survey began in 1981.
This is the Broken Britain you've heard so much about.
There may be a number of reasons for this big gap between the real world and how the public perceives it. Some will be attracted to the theory of oppressive governments seeking expanded powers of arrest, detention and surveillance with the spurious justification of keeping us safe from harm. Others may prefer to lay the blame at the door of our newspapers, seeking to sell copies and flog advertising space off the back of sensationally distorting the mundane truth that this is a fundamentally safe, peaceful and well-ordered country. Both may be at least partly true and there may be any number of additional factors at play. What remains clear, though, is that talk of statistical trends should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism by anyone interested in not being manipulated.
One notable exponent of spinning a trend out of a few incidents (or even just one incident) seems to be Daily Mail firebrand Melanie Phillips.
Writing this week, Phillips reports on the strange and sad tale of a five-year-old child named Sasha Laxton, whose parents decided to avoid classifying him as either a boy or a girl. She quite rightly points out that however well-intended this was meant to be, the effects are unpredictable and may well be harmful.
So how big a problem is this?
"Sasha's parents," writes Phillips "are by no means a one-off aberration. Last year, a Canadian couple insisted they would also raise their baby, Storm, as a gender-neutral child."
So that's two nutty sets of parents, then. How many more at there? Well, although Phillips contends that "in certain circles, this is becoming a fashion," she declines to cite any more examples. True, she finds what sound like reasonably worrying cases of academics or public bodies making strange-sounding pronouncements about the desirability of talking down differences between the genders. But she offers no further examples of actual families raising actual children according to such principles.
Keeping in mind the falling crime figures and the widespread perception that the opposite is true, you may agree that it is wise to remain healthily sceptical about the evidence of worrying trends even when frightening or unwelcome incidents are reported very regularly. Surely that level of scepticism should be even higher when just two isolated cases of potty parenting are put forward to support Melanie Phillips's argument that "far from ushering in a better world", this approach to children and gender "threatens to stamp out the individual right to know what we are, and to rob us of humanity itself."
The tone here is so shrill that it seems hard not to conclude that Phillips was desperately reaching for some hysterical bullshit with which to fill her column on Sunday and that she came up with a particularly outlandish piece on this occasion. The Mail peddles fear of change and difference. That's what it does. But Phillips runs the risk of trying so hard to deliver the goods that she'll up looking like an especially deluded fantasist.