Ralph Leonard

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.


Charlotte Huggins. Jaden Moodie. Jodie Chesney. Lejean Richards. Cheyon Evans: just a few of the names of those tragically killed in stabbing incidents this year. Hardly a week goes by without someone losing their lives to violence, while the rest of us repeat our ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Over 100 people in this dreaded year alone have been killed by knife-wielding assailants, the highest number since Home Office records began in 1946. What is particularly disturbing is just how young many of the victims and perpetrators are. Hospitals report that the number of children aged 16 and under admitted for assault by a knife or sharp object rose by 93%, from 180 admissions in 2012/13 to 347 in 2017/18. Meanwhile fatal ‘blade offences’ committed by those aged 18 or under are reported to have risen by 77% between 2016 and 2018 –from 26 to 46 deaths.

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The recent surge in knife crime is undoubtedly disturbing. It has sparked a fierce public debate and demands for action. Boris Johnson has announced that his government will recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places and expand stop and search powers as part of an effort to ‘clamp down’ on knife crime. The aim being to emphasise deterrence and punishment, reassure the public and send a message to criminals.

Meanwhile, the blame is put at various doors, including drill music, austerity, cuts to police numbers, pupil exclusions and fatherlessness among other pet theories. Each is an attempt to fit a complex issue into a simple explanation.

Take, for example, the question of fatherlessness, especially as it concerns black communities. In a column for the Sunday Times, published shortly after the murder of Jaden Moodie, Rod Liddle claimed that absentee fathers are to blame for knife violence among black youth. Inevitably, it stirred up a storm on social media with David Lammy labelling Liddle a “national disgrace” and “a living, breathing personification and definition of white middle class privilege.” The irony is that Lammy made virtually the same argument in 2012 when he suggested that the absence of fathers was a “key cause” of knife crime. Earlier in 2010 he also urged black fathers to be more involved with their children.

Clearly, family dysfunction is a significant issue and ought to be discussed seriously. But too often it is discussed in a narrow and at times an overly racialised manner, as if it were disconnected from wider social and economic trends that affect white people too. We should neither essentialise the issue as an exclusively black cultural problem, nor avoid the issue for fear of offence.

Other policy suggestions, such as the clampdown on drill music that some people call for (because the genre supposedly incites violence), would be counter-productive infringements on free speech. Likewise, stop and search is not a viable solution because of its record of indiscriminate use against ethnic minorities. These are authoritarian solutions that, at best, deal with the symptoms, not the causes, of violence while causing resentment and curtailing liberties.

By way of contrast, the Left tends to view the knife crime debate as a “moral panic” perpetuated by elites to justify draconian policies of social control. There is indeed a history of such panics, some of them trafficking in racial stereotypes, such as the supposed epidemic of ‘black muggers’ in the 1970s (as documented by Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis). A lot of the recent reporting on knife crime, particularly around drill music, does seem designed not to inform, but frighten, people.

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In place of policies based on punishment and deterrence, there are those on the Left who argue we should frame knife crime as a public health issue, pointing to how Scotland tackled its knife crime epidemic over a decade ago. “You can please the Right wing press or you can be effective,” said Ash Sarkar of Novara media, “what we know is effective is a public health driven model where you increase the role of social services and early intervention…if you want to please disgusted in Tunbridge Wells then increase stop and search.”

It is clear that the social indicators that factor into crime occur pretty much universally: poverty, domestic abuse, dilapidated communities, school exclusion, lack of opportunities, structural inequality, overburdened services and so on. A high level of crime and violence usually correlates with the poorest and most run down areas. So any strategy that is serious about tackling crime and violence at its root must address the material and social conditions that allow it to thrive.

However, to simply treat knife crime as a ‘public health’ issue that requires ‘early intervention’ and ‘containment strategies’, as if we were dealing with a medical crisis like AIDS or Ebola, is somewhat evasive because it doesn’t address the full picture and ignores the question of moral poverty.

Many of those who get involved in knife crime at a particular stage in their life are usually socially disengaged and detached from the wider community. They have no sense of respect for their fellow humans or the community in which they live. Slaves to nihilism and despair they are not just the products of economic poverty, but of moral poverty too. Many of them join gangs, who are almost a surrogate family to them, feeding a need for solidarity and purpose in a society that cannot provide it to them.

Because the Right is adept at appropriating the language of morality, there is a tendency on the Left to reject it, regarding it as reactionary. On some level this is understandable because the Right often uses moral arguments to individualise social problems and obscure the structural roots of crime and violence. However, the moral dimension is as important to the Left as it is to the Right, though for quite different reasons. One cannot have an alternative political and economic vision for organising society without a moral one too.

Throughout many communities institutions such as the church, the patriarchal family and trade unions that once socialised young people and gave them a moral framework have declined and no longer have the influence and trust they once did.

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The relentless promotion of market ideology (what is often referred to as neoliberalism) over past few decades, and the more recent experience of austerity, have helped to atomise society, weaken social bonds and fragment communities. With the increasing marketisation of society in areas such as health and education, value for money and economic self interest have been elevated above deeper social and moral needs.

Responding to the devastating consequences of these policies, politicians have expanded the scope of the state and officialdom. Where once families and community institutions helped define morality, increasingly that role has been outsourced to the public sector – filling the void with everything from citizenship and consent classes for children to parenting courses for adults.

Morality has become a set of ‘skills’ that can simply be taught, or a set of rules and guidelines handed down by the state from on high, instead of a set of difficult choices individuals have to wrestle with, or a set of norms deliberated over collectively. The effect of all of these developments has been to undermine moral autonomy and retard the genuine moral development of individuals. In other words, morality no longer belongs to us.

The question of moral decay should then at least form a critical part of any discussion on knife crime. The Left is very good at talking about the social and economic impact of neoliberal policies, but not so good about its moral impact, beyond cliched rants against individualism and ‘greed’. The irony is that in forgetting how to talk about morality, the Left can only retreat into shallow moralism.

Left-wing politics is not viable without moral autonomy, because it is through exercising this capacity that people are able to transform society for the better. Moral autonomy is the prerequisite for social solidarity in any meaningful sense. People are not simply automatons who are eternally victims of circumstance, blown about helplessly by impersonal economic and social forces. They are moral agents who have a will and a mind of their own.

You cannot challenge austerity and structural inequality without restoring the bonds of social solidarity within the communities devastated by them. This doesn’t mean playing up to tabloid style ‘moral majority’ politics or responding to Right-wing racist authoritarianism by proposing a Left-wing racist authoritarianism. What it does mean is that the Left has to reclaim the language of morality and renew institutions that help individuals to realise their own moral autonomy.

It only in this way that we can wake up from the nightmare of violence.

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