The Magazine

London on One Mugging a Day

The British crime invasion.

Apr 22, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 31 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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THINKING OF VISITING London? Great idea. Airfares are low, the weather is fine, the chance of contracting mad cow disease has fallen from infinitesimal to zero, and the talented British actors tread the boards of the West End and National theaters with their usual skill and verve.

But leave your Rolex at home. At least once each day someone here is mugged for his or her Rolex, and typically badly mauled in the process. And if you hire a car and driver to show you around, make sure the driver is reasonably expert in evasive tactics. Liza Minnelli and her latest husband were recently being driven in their limousine when it stopped for a traffic light and thugs reached into the open window to try to snatch the comeback entertainer's necklace.

Liza was lucky: Her trained driver put the pedal to the floor. But others are not so lucky. The papers carry daily reports of drivers hauled from their cars in broad daylight by weapons-toting thugs who then sell the vehicle for parts (if it is a lower-priced car) or for shipment to middle Europe.

A casual stroller on London's streets is now six times more likely to be mugged than is a New Yorker who walks about Giuliani-pacified New York. Soon-to-be-released figures will show that the British robbery rate is up in the last three years by 25 percent, 13 percent, and 26 percent. Some 80 percent of these crimes are street robberies. The home secretary, in charge of Britain's police and the protection of its citizens, concedes that "people don't feel safe" because of "the thuggery and violence in our streets."

And not only the city streets. The murder rate in Derbyshire quadrupled in the past year, doubled in Essex, and increased by 75 percent in Hertfordshire. In Cheshire, regarded as one of the safest counties, there have been eight murders in the past year, compared to none the year before.

But London is where the problem is most visible, or at least most widely reported. Dinner conversations in the city are now dominated by tales of who was mugged or burgled, a topic paradoxically discussed along with the huge increase in London house prices. St. James's in 2002 sounds like the Upper East Side of Manhattan, circa 1990. New Labour London is now Old Democrat New York.

No surprise. More than a decade ago, Charles Murray came to Britain, visited its housing estates (our projects) and prisons, and concluded that an emerging underclass would soon make life difficult in Britain, as unsocialized youngsters grew up to become "violent chronic criminals." He was right. Many of the worst multiple offenders are teenagers, who seem as eager to commit violence as to snatch mobile phones, purses, and wallets. And with the rise in the drug trade, guns, once virtually unused by crooks or cops, have become common. Again, no surprise: The increase in guns in the hands of the bad guys coincides with the adoption of legislation that took them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens, making it safer for burglars to enter occupied homes, a crime more common now than ever.

The sad fact is that crime does indeed pay. Only three out of every 100 offenses against people or property lead to a conviction or what the British call a "caution" (please don't do it again or we will issue another caution). Youngsters with over 100 proven offenses are often let off with a "caution" not to visit their local malls. The government says its jails are overcrowded, and it is disinclined to build more. It worries that conditions in its prisons are unpleasant, without explaining why such unpleasantness might not usefully discourage return visits.

This is only one of the things that are demoralizing Britain's bobbies. London spends about as much on policing as does New York, but New York has 50 percent more police. The money in London goes to overtime for police who rarely venture out of their police stations, and to pensions for cops with often trumped-up permanent disabilities. There is no computer system along the lines of those Rudy Giuliani installed to put the cops where the crime is, on a daily basis.