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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LONDON
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.

But there is a great deal of paper work. In response to charges of racism, the police abandoned a stop-and-search program. Predictably, street crime soared, so much so that newspapers serving the black community demanded the reinstitution of stop-and-search. The government obliged, but ordered the police to prepare a written report of each such maneuver, including the reason that prompted them to stop the suspect, and give one copy to the suspect, presumed to wait patiently for this addition to his library, and file one copy at the station. By one estimate this would add up to five million reports every year, assuming that the cops are not deterred by this silliness from stopping anyone. It is difficult to imagine Giuliani splitting the difference between those who want the laws enforced and those who are concerned that the civil rights of potential crooks be preserved by burying the police under a mound of paper.

All of this has a cost, a portion of it measurable. House insurance in high-burglary areas is twice that of safer ones; car insurance costs are half-again as much. Private police now patrol some of London's tonier streets. Burglar alarms and other devices are absolutely required in London homes and flats, although the police, harassed by false alarms due to technically deficient homeowners or the poor quality of telephone lines, are reluctant to respond to such calls for help.

Whether this dreary record of a government that pledged to be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" in an effort to appease both the harried middle class and the left wing of the Labour party will cause London to fall victim to New York's onetime disease remains to be seen. Those who can remember the days of David Dinkins and his police commissioner Ray Kelly (the latter now reinstalled in that post by Mayor Bloomberg) will recall that tourists shunned the city, and major corporations, unable to attract executive talent to its dangerous streets, left in droves.

London remains a lovely city, with a proliferation of new, trendy restaurants now filling the one gap in its attractions for the urban-inclined. But it is now a city to be visited with a New Yorker's onetime alertness to footsteps behind you on a dark street. The Brits knighted Rudy Giuliani in recognition of his heroic performance on and after September 11. Perhaps their new knight can don his armor and advise them how to deal with out-of-control thugs.

Irwin M. Stelzer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).