Behind the man with the knife is the man who sold him the knife, the man who did not give him a job, the man who decided that his school did not need funding, the man who closed down the branch plant where he could have worked, the man who decided to reduce benefit levels so that a black economy grew, all the way back to the woman who only noticed ‘those inner cities’ some six years after the summer of 1981, and the people who voted to keep her in office… Those who perpetrated the social violence that was done to the lives of young men starting some 20 years ago are the prime suspects for most of the murders in Britain.

Danny Dorling from Criminal Obsessions

At the level of immediate political rhetoric Dorling’s point is strong and hard to contest. The relationship between crime and social inequality is strong and income inequality and other forms of social injustice are shaped by our political leaders.

As a statement of cause and effect of course there are too many other factors involved to bring anyone, other than the man with the knife, to trial. And the man with the knife was free not to use it. To believe otherwise is to perpetuate the disrespectful view that our leaders take of us – we’re all too stupid to be trusted with freedoms and resources. We must leave power to the powerful.

We must somehow find a way of exploring two dimensions of our society. On the one hand we must acknowledge the existence of social conditions that are ‘better for us’ – which promote better behaviour, well-being and moral development. [Noting of course that we don’t all share the same view about what ‘better’ means or how ‘better’ should be distributed.] We must therefore work to bring about a fairer society, a decent society, which reduces the risk of such criminality.

On the other hand we must not collapse our discussions of politics into a simplistic cause and effect narrative, nor forget that we can always be the difference.

So, alongside Dorling’s narrative one might imagine all the opportunities missed:

  • The small business man who refused to sell knives.
  • The entrepreneur who focused on helping recruit from that community.
  • The community leader who helped develop new educational opportunities.
  • The cooperative buy-out that saved the failing business.
  • The social policy expert who led the charge for a decent minimum income.
  • The politician who helped reform the welfare system without reducing rights.
  • The society that stayed true to its ideal.

Dorling is right, but the charges won’t stick, because we’re all involved and we’re all complicit. But that also means we can all help change things. We are not the creatures of the politicians who should be there to serve us.