Leaving school in 1969, I remember being afraid to take up my place at Glasgow School of Art such was the reputation of the city, as gangs of knife-carrying teenagers terrorised the housing schemes and even fought in the city centre streets. My walk to Queen Street Station, often after dark, was a time of barely suppressed panic and I often ran, on hearing voices calling ‘Tongs ya bass’ or something like that, from side streets not too far away.
Much has clearly changed in these nearly 50 years. I lost my fear of Glasgow streets some time ago and knife crime in the city is very much reduced judging by headlines like the one above, taken from the Guardian in November. More recently, we even had four murders by knife, in one night, in London.
Also and related, I wrote only yesterday, that the level of violence with injury in Scotland’s university cities is much lower than all of those in England:
Scotland’s university cities by far the safest places to send your children
Here’s what the Guardian had to say:
‘Knife crime has killed 35 children and teenagers in England and Wales so far this year, meaning that 2017 is likely to be the worst year for such deaths in nearly a decade. Official figures exclusively obtained by the Guardian show that this year will be the worst since 2008 when 42 young people aged 19 and under lost their lives as a result of an attack with a knife.’
So why have things changed for the better in Scotland? The reasons for this kind of change are usually multiple and complex but according to another piece in the Guardian, in December:
‘Treating knife crime as a health issue has led to a dramatic drop in stabbings: of the 35 deaths of young people in Britain this year, none were in Scotland. In 2005, Strathclyde police set up a violence reduction unit (VRU) in an effort to address a problem that had made Glasgow, in particular, notorious. Later that year, a United Nations report illustrated why that strategy was so urgent. The study concluded that Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world. Based on telephone interviews with crime victims conducted between 1991 and 2000, it found that excluding murder, Scots were almost three times as likely to be assaulted as Americans and 30 times more likely than the Japanese.’
The Scottish Government and the Scottish police forces then took action:
‘The VRU, which is directly funded by the Scottish government and has an arms-length relationship with Police Scotland, was later rolled out across Scotland. It has adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. The results so far have been dramatic. Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland; between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight.’
Scotland is changing for the better in related ways too. Domestic violence, hate crime and even homicide are all falling. See these recent reports:
Reported domestic violence in Scotland falls. Is this part of wider change?
Racial hate crimes increase by 33% in England & Wales while falling by 10% in Scotland: Who says we’re not different?
Scotland’s homicide rate falls by 47%, is lower than the rate for England and Wales and has fallen faster than many other countries in the ten years of SNP government
Don’t we all need to see more of this kind of thing reported without having to look for it in the English press?
Footnote: While not wishing to discount initiatives like the VRU, we’ve seen elsewhere, such as in New York’s crime reduction, the possibility of other factors being influential such as a reduced population of young males in deprived areas, the greater appeal of life indoors with new entertainment technologies or even the removal of lead from petrol.
Here’s the argument for lead removal reducing crime but of course it wouldn’t entirely explain the fall in Scotland at the same time as the rise in English cities:
As major global cities like London struggle with pollution, levels in Scotland have dropped by more than 66% since 1990. Has this contributed to falling crime levels too?
It is “Awesome” that in such a short period of time that violence has become “Uncool”! I am borrowing my grandchildren’s
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Oh dear! Fumbled it again. Take 2.
It is “Awesome” that in such a short period of time that violence has become “Uncool”! I am borrowing my grandchildren’s parlance to describe my puzzlement. What brought about such a sudden change. Lead certainly has been reduced in the environment both in petrol and water pipes and other atmospheric metal pollutants reduced through de-industrialisation but I find it hard to accept credance to that in such a short time scale.
It would be interesting if a pivotal point could be identified.
Regardless of our puzzlement it is exceptionally good news as the grief at the loss of a child is beyond my comprehension.
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Undoubtedly, the Violence Reduction Unit’s approach has had a strong effect. And, I know this may offend those with strong civil liberties beliefs, I suspect stop-and-search might well have had an impact. Given my own views, I am uneasy with making such a statement, but, I think, on balance, it has had a positive effect.
During the 1960s, my teenage years, it was quite routine for many of my pals to carry a ‘blade’. For most, it was a bit of bravado and I can remember, on several occasions, when we were headed out to the dancing, mammies going through our pockets and confiscating such weapons – and, most mammies had no compunction of going through the pockets of ALL their children’s pals.
Sadly, on one occasion, one of my pals when completely frightened by a group from a neighbouring area, panicked and stopped a boy on the arm. He was not caught by the police, but his mammy was so frightened of revenge that she sent him to live for a while with her sister on the other side of Scotland.
I think, too, a lot of credit has to go to other agencies. Schools have done a lot via ‘social education’. Boys clubs – and it is mainly a boy problem – have provided outlets. The Children’s Panel system has been effective despite its excoriation by much of the media in its early years. Social workers have had significant influence.
But I think the attitudes of much of the Scottish population have changed. Having lived all my life in Glasgow, I am delighted that the ‘No Mean City’ myth has been rejected by so many of my fellow citizens. When I was younger, many of us did rather enjoy the reputation for notoriety. I look back at that younger me and squirm with embarrassment.
I think also, that in much of Scotland we have retained, to a fair extent, senses of community. Although society is more transient, I think there are still feelings of community. In many of England’s cities the population is markedly more diverse, much more fragmented and much more mobile. Many sections have become much more alienated, particularly by the misanthropic outpourings of the media and the publicity given to the views of groups like UKIP, BNP, etc. The fragmentation of the education system compared to that in Scotland is a factor. And, growing poverty, inequality, youth unemployment all contribute. We are not immune in Scotland, but I suspect that the density and diversity of England is a factor. Mrs Thatcher’s. ‘there is no such thing as society’ seemed to find more fertile ground there. Even the much-maligned Scottish Labour Party resisted chunks of the ‘new’ Labour neoliberalism. Perhaps our cultural ‘presbyterian heritage’ (and I include other Christian groups in that, because they lived in – tholed? – that ethos) is a factor, too.
I recognise that much of what I have written is a bit eclectic and disconnected, but that is because social issues are multi-factorial.
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Apologies for poor typing and editing – third paragraph, first line – it should be ‘stabbed’ not ‘stopped’.
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We must use the same make of keyboard!
I hadn’t thought of the stop and search police tactics and I am sure it must have had an effect in making people stop to think if it was worth being caught with a weapon that was more bravado than anything else.
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Thanks Alasdair. Interesting. I had less tooled-up pals clearly.
Great piece of research and analysis. I am constantly sparring, by email, with my English friend, who lives just north of London. I sent him a link to this post. And now, even he has admitted a fine job done by Scotland on this subject. He lives in a small(ish), well known market town north of London. They (him, family and friends) make sure they stay away from the town centre on weekend nights, due to the violence spilling out of the pubs.