Defund the police was a provocative slogan for the US radical left and the settled policy of Britain’s ruling right. You should switch off politicians and commentators who talk about building a safer country, if they don’t face up to the debilitation that 11 years of Conservative defunding has inflicted on the criminal justice system.
Let one anecdote stand in for the bigger picture. The Tories sold half the magistrates’ courts and more than a third of county courts in England and Wales between 2010 and 2020, and about 600 police stations. The same government is engaged in a screeching U-turn today and trying to deal with the tens of thousands of Covid-delayed trials by opening “Nightingale courts”, although I doubt that Florence Nightingale would have sent the lowliest British soldier in Crimea to our fetid prisons.
Bewildered detectives reported to former chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal that a police station in the north-west was included in the fire sale and an organised crime group bought it. The gang run it as a pizza restaurant and a front for the distribution of drugs – “extra toppings”. Afzal tells me police intelligence heard the gangsters “crowing” about getting one over on their old adversaries.
A country where crime gangs do business from former cop shops is not one whose politicians should be able to boast of their toughness on crime. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel get away with it by saying they will restore the 15% cut in police numbers their own party imposed by 2023. No sensible person believes a Johnson promise. But humour me and assume he isn’t lying. When newspapers from Cheshire to the Thames Valley report that local officers dealt informally with suspects accused of child sex crimes, drugs trafficking, stalking, robbery, firearms possession, kidnapping and blackmail rather than take them to court, the softest liberal may concede Johnson has a point.
He cannot make it stick, and not just because the courts will still be hearing Covid-delayed cases in 2023, and have no idea when they will return to normal. For the court system, failure was the “normal” of the 2010s. As with so much else, the pandemic has accelerated existing trends and, in the case of the criminal justice system, the trend was downhill all the way.
Johnson’s party reduced the Crown Prosecution Service to an organisation “creaking” under the strain of a loss of a quarter of its budget, in the words of Alison Saunders, a former director of public prosecutions. With malign timing, the explosion in evidence from online data coincided with the assault on the public sector, slowing the ability of prosecutors and police officers to process cases. Legal aid payments for defence solicitors have become so miserly that suspects may soon be unable to find lawyers in large parts of the country. Prisons have confined inmates to their cells, meanwhile, in conditions the Prison Reform Trust says “amount to solitary confinement”. The pandemic destroyed what attempts the jails made to turn them from crime when it closed classrooms, gyms, libraries, workshops and offending behaviour programmes.
I could go on to the withdrawal of public support from youth workers, social workers and teachers who might identify and divert young men at risk of turning to crime, and from probation officers who might rehabilitate offenders. I could look at drug and alcohol consumption rates and poverty.
However long I spent, the fact would remain that, when Patel said: “I want criminals to feel terror”, she must have known the odds were criminals would be left in peace. What applies to the failing system applies to libertarians who worry, understandably, about the authoritarian powers the government has taken in the crisis. They cry that the UK is becoming a police state without understanding that we don’t have enough police to police a police state. Liberals, who want a humane prison system or a police force that takes the abuse of women seriously and does not disproportionately target young black men, not only need to think about where they will find the funding, but about who they might train and recruit and how many years it will take to rebuild from the wreckage.
The Conservatives got away with defunding the police and the rest of the criminal justice system in part because their 11 years in power began during a period of social peace across the developed world. From the mid-1960s until the 1990s, crime rates exploded and then fell back, spectacularly, in the 21st century. Criminologists argue about the reasons: ageing populations, the aborting of unwanted children, even reductions in air pollution and levels of lead in the blood. As always, left and right pick the explanation that suit their biases. Perhaps we do not need an explanation. What American researchers call “the great crime decline” may just be a reversion to the mean. Humanity progresses, as Steven Pinker has argued, and a part of the progress has been a decline in everyday violence that began at the end of the Middle Ages.
On this view, the brutal decades of the late 20th century were a temporary diversion from the road to greater peace. In 2014, when UK crime rates had fallen significantly below 1990 levels, researchers from Cambridge University and the World Health Organization said a future in which rates of homicide, child abuse and domestic violence fell by as much as 50% was achievable in 30 years. Today, they may not be so confident. Gun deaths reached their highest point in US history in 2020, a year the Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey described as “the most violent” of the century. A gradual rise in crime since 2014 had culminated in “a really terrible year across the whole country”.
American exceptionalism should make you wary of looking west for guides to what will happen next here. I just mention in passing that UK crime rates have risen since 2014, too, and plateaued around their 1990 level. They are still below their peak but, if they should explode, the justice system would fall apart. Indeed, it has already fallen apart.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist