What would actually help would be to make our streets safe
In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder, the former victims’ commissioner and Conservative peer Lady Newlove has tabled an amendment to the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill that would make misogyny a hate crime, sparking debate within the Tories and elsewhere.
Does this make sense? The difficulty with this debate is that like any media-driven demand for legislation, it is highly emotive, and tends to skip without much rigour between the dimensions of moral pronouncement and real-world law and order policy.
On the moral pronouncement side, it’s relatively clear what we achieve by making misogyny a hate crime. Making misogyny a hate crime says, in effect, that women have a right to never experience hostility on the grounds of being women, and that this right has (in theory at least) the backing of state power.
I’ve previously written about the social function of hate crime law as an expression of contemporary sacred values. We may debate the wisdom of granting women blanket immunity from opprobrium, but it’s at least clear what a hate crime law does: it’s a statement about our public moral priorities.
From the perspective of actionable policy, it’s more difficult to see what this statement achieves — and far easier to see what it conceals. To illustrate, consider an example from my small town, where a teenage girl was recently sexually assaulted on her way home from Guides, by a gang of young men notorious locally for violence, burglary and vandalism.
Initially, the girl identified her attackers to the police. But following a campaign of intimidation against her family, she subsequently withdrew the positive identification. The case has now been dropped.
Would it have made any difference if her assault had been treated as a hate crime? Unlikely. Would it have made any difference if local police were not administratively overburdened and hopelessly under-staffed? Quite possibly.
Perhaps they’d have been able to attend, investigate and prosecute the innumerable prior thefts, assaults and burglaries committed by this gang, which police simply refuse to investigate — even, as in some cases, if there are witnesses or CCTV footage. Perhaps these thugs would have been in prison, unable to terrorise young women.
But that’s not where we are. Policing overall continues to be cut to the bone, even as expectations mount on officers to enforce an ever-growing array of sacred moral values with little bearing on everyday public quality of life. Half the country’s police stations have closed since 2010, meaning outside cities officers are often too far away for rapid response. And our political leaders have effectively abolished UK beat policing, except in high-crime urban areas.
The upshot is a police force without the resources to tackle common or garden ‘antisocial behaviour’, to the detriment of the countless women for whom safe streets are a prerequisite for participation in public life.
Against that backdrop, making misogyny a hate crime is pure window-dressing. Making the streets safe for law-abiding citizens is a policy that would benefit women most of all. But making misogyny a hate crime instead implies leaders who’ve abandoned this as a realistic policy, and are now hoping weakly that people will be fobbed off with a burst of moral mood music.