Pubdate: Thu, 30 Aug 2007
Source: Times, The (UK)
Copyright: 2007 Times Newspapers Ltd
Author: Anatole Kaletsky


We Need a Radical Approach to Tackling Crime on British Streets

When a newly appointed minister arrives at his office in Whitehall, 
the first thing his permanent secretary gently tells him is to avoid 
simple answers to complex problems.

What I am about to say therefore guarantees that I will never be 
asked to join a government advisory panel or Royal Commission; but 
since I can earn a decent living without having to impress 
politicians, let me break the taboo. The fact is that many complex 
problems do have simple answers. What politicians mean when they say 
"there are no simple answers" is that the simple answers are not the 
same as easy ones. The easy answer to almost any political problem is 
to highlight its complexity, plead for patience, appoint a policy 
czar and set up a Royal Commission. The simple answer is often to do 
something bold and previously unthinkable. In other words, to cut the 
Gordian knot instead of trying to untie it.

Simple answers have resolved many of most intractable problems. 
Gordon Brown should know this better than anyone, having rescued 
Labour's economic reputation by the simple, though far from easy or 
riskless expedient of Bank of England independence. John Major, by 
contrast, allowed his Government to be paralysed because he rejected 
the simple answer to the ERM currency blunder, which was to pull 
Britain out voluntarily before it was expelled. That experience was 
eerily reminiscent of the far greater interwar disaster of deflation 
caused by the gold standard, ultimately resolved in the same simple 
way - by pulling out. This action prompted Sidney Webb's famous 
lament on behalf of the ruined Labour Government: "Nobody told us we 
could do that."

Simple solutions are just as important in diplomacy as in economics. 
The simple answer to Hitler was the one urged by Churchill, but 
rejected by Chamberlain: urgent rearmament. The simple answer to the 
reconstruction of postwar Europe was the Marshall Plan: instead of 
demanding reparations from Germany, give it aid. The answer when 
George Bush asked for Tony Blair's support in his ill-considered Iraq 
invasion should have been even simpler: Just Say No.

This famous slogan from America's War on Drugs brings me to my main 
subject. As has been so apparent from the past week's events, Mr 
Brown now faces a host of problems more daunting than any he imagined 
at the Treasury. Yet there is a common thread linking the British 
Army's failure to bring order to large parts of Afghanistan 
controlled by the Taleban and the British police's failure to bring 
order to large parts of our inner cities controlled by gangs of 
gun-toting youths. That common thread is drugs.

The UN report published this week on the huge expansion of opium 
production in Afghanistan's lawless Helmand province has turned into 
common knowledge what British diplomats and generals have been 
whispering for years: the Taleban and al-Qaeda are making vast 
profits from the international drug trade. Official efforts to 
eradicate poppies are not just failing but are actually promoting 
more opium production by turning many remote regions of the country 
into anarchic no-go zones, completely beyond the control of coalition 
forces. The anti-drug campaigns are also strengthening the Taliban 
militarily by turning local populations against the allied forces and 
the Afghan Government, since these threaten the opium farmers' meagre 

Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that efforts to 
promote economic development, education and political reconstruction 
in Helmand are failing. Such efforts may be necessary to win the 
"hearts and minds", but development campaigns cannot even get started 
so long as local people see government officials and British soldiers 
as alien interlopers, bent on destroying the only economic and social 
structures that actually work in their communities, which happen to 
be based on drugs.

Back on the streets of Britain we see a similar process. Why have the 
police lost control of the streets in so many British cities to armed 
gangs with easy access to weapons and growing propensities to 
violence? Partly, perhaps, the violence is due to failures in the 
criminal justice system: mismanaged police priorities, excess 
bureaucracy, lax sentencing and so on. Partly, the inner-city anarchy 
stems from poor education, joblessness and family breakdown. Rampant 
consumerism, our winner-takes-all culture and violence in music and 
videos no doubt play a part. The list of underlying causes for social 
breakdown and teenage alienation is endless.

This complexity would seem to suggest that we cannot even think about 
the violent crime wave, until all of our society's manifold economic, 
psychological and educational problems can be resolved. That, of 
course, means we must cede our city streets to gangs more or less for 
ever - which is precisely the attitude adopted by many police forces, 
judges and politicians until now.

But what if, instead of looking for the root causes of crime and 
social breakdown, we consider what might have changed in recent years 
to encourage more teenagers to carry weapons? The answer then becomes 
much simpler. As in Helmand, many inner-city estates have created an 
alternative social order where the economics of the hugely profitable 
drug trade are far more attractive than any other choice.

And just as in Helmand, the efforts to suppress drug-use and trading 
have distracted the police and the courts from the infinitely more 
important tasks of preventing violence and keeping control of the 
streets. For example, tougher sentences for carrying knives or guns 
are pointless when the law already imposes even longer prison terms - 
up to life for large quantities - on people who carry drugs, which 
many of the teenage gangs habitually do. Similarly, zero-tolerance 
policing, which could certainly help to get weapons off the streets 
in the right conditions, is of little use if prisons are so 
overcrowded with drug offenders that there is no room for violent 
criminals carrying knives and even guns.

All these observations point to a simple conclusion: simple, though 
not easy. The global war against drugs is in contradiction to the war 
against violent crime at home and the war against terrorism 
internationally. Legalising, or at least decriminalising, drugs 
would, not on its own, end terrorism or gang violence - and it is no 
substitute for long-term measures to promote development abroad or 
improve education at home. But a ceasefire in the war against drugs 
would at least give peace a chance - not only in Afghanistan, but 
also in the streets of Britain. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake