My friends and I have a favourite term for the notoriously violent streets of Glasgow. It is, we say, ‘Stabby’. I spent New Years Eve up at my friend Ross’ flat in Partick. The next day we took a walk. He wanted to show me some amazing graffiti that he had to pass everyday on his way to and from work. He took me down into a bleak subway for pedestrians and cyclists called The Clyde Tunnel. I wasn’t disappointed. Almost every foot of the dank, dimly-lit, paint-peeling walls was covered in the most amazing/depressing art/wilful vandalism I had ever seen. Truly, here was the voice of the voiceless; the inarticulate howl of the powerless. It was funny and disturbing and frightening and despairing all at the same time (I took several photos before running out of memory – they’re on my MySpace page. Honestly though: I only scratched the surface). At some point on our journey I had noticed several names scrawled on the walls, all of which were followed by the phrase ‘on tour’. ‘On tour’, my companion duly informed me, meant stabbed to death.
With the current debate about knife-crime centred on a series of (mostly) black deaths in inner-city London, it is easy to forget that places like Glasgow have been suffering high rates of death by knife for years. The murder rate in Scotland is – per capita – three times higher than it is in England. I don’t ever recall seeing the kind of scary headlines that encompass current media language appearing with regards to Scotland’s wee ‘problem’. But then the east-end of Glasgow, needless to say, is ‘a long way away’ in the minds of the London-centric universe of the media. Concern for the rising rates of knife-crime has been bubbling away in our print and visual media for some time now. The high-pitched tone of the debate at present merely goes to show one thing: the problem has come to the attention of the middle classes. This sets off that classic feedback loop whereby the media and the populace feed off and into each other, and the debate rises to the regrettable level of a ‘moral panic’. When this happens all common sense goes out the window.
All this couldn’t have happened at a worse time for Britain’s working class youth. Already demonised by recent years of spurious reporting regarding the threat represented by ‘chavs’ and ‘hoodies’, Britain’s youth are now being given a new, altogether more deadly, make-over – knife-wielding murderers who would stick it to you as soon as look at you. The middle classes – already panicked – are now positively terrified. Whenever an issue reaches the stage of moral panic, it never fails to bring up the ranters, ravers and demagogues who arise to offer quick-fixes and simple solutions. If the issue is one of crime, it always brings out the “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” brigade. These solutions are unfailingly popular with the public, so politicians tend to alter their rhetoric to mirror this. The current cry on all sides is for “tougher sentences”. David Cameron, for instance, took no time at all going from “hug a hoodie” to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’.
I hope it’s too obvious to point out that incarcerating larger numbers of British youth for longer periods will prove dangerously counter-productive. Tougher sentences for carrying a knife is too little too late. Am I going to have to use the words horse, gate, and bolted? Because I really don’t want to. Such cynical short-termism will only back-fire in the long run: further disenfranchising an alienated and estranged sector of our society, while simultaneously antagonising the already tense relationship between working class communities and the state. I don’t mean to sound like a class-warrior here, but such rhetoric is there only to placate the fears of the middle classes (i.e. those who read the papers; i.e. voters). What other reason is it there for? Is it going to sooth the fears of the inner-city parent who quite reasonably has genuine fears that their child may become the next victim? It is not a serious attempt to deal with what is a serious problem, because a serious attempt would involve actively engaging with the very communities that are at the brunt of this – not telling the media what it, and its consumers, so desperately want to hear. Luckily, it is a long way from headlines to legislation, but I can’t help but worry. Britain already has the largest per capita prison population in Europe – if we carry on down this line we are headed for a situation like that of the USA, where a huge portion of the working class population remain incarcerated at the behest of ‘middle’ America and its penal system.
Fear of wild, uncontrollable youngsters – a perennial complaint of Britain’s moral guardians – has reached fever pitch with this series of tragic deaths. Sticking plaster solutions may ease the misplaced fears of the general populace, but they do nothing to heal the gaping wound at the heart of our most vulnerable communities. In trying to see through the hysteria, we must in no way diminish the seriousness of the problem. This recent series of deaths should pain us all, for they each represent a society which has failed its children. However, we must not kid ourselves as to who is suffering here. I don’t deny that something must be done about knife-crime. What I am saying is that the problem is a working-class problem, and that it needs to be understood as such – without recourse to the panic-stricken fears of the middle-classes – before it can even begin to be resolved.