Are late night brawls a thing of the past?
- 23 April 2014
- From the section UK
Our society is becoming significantly less violent. Today's figures suggesting a 12% year-on-year drop in admissions to English hospitals for violent injuries are just the latest evidence of a remarkable and welcome trend. Something extraordinary is happening.
The chances of being a victim of violent crime in Britain are half what they were less than 20 years ago. Murders are at their lowest level since the early 1980s.
It's not just in Britain. Violence appears to be falling in many developed countries, with no obvious common political or ideological driver.
The homicide rate has halved since the early 90s in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Netherlands, South Africa, Canada and the US, the list goes on, despite markedly different approaches to criminal justice and social policies.
So what is happening? One popular current theory is that the switch to lead-free petrol has reduced ingestion of a substance, which in substantial doses over a long period has known links to aggression. There is a striking correlation between a fall in violence and the introduction of unleaded fuel in different countries.
However, the continued substantial fall in serious violence in the UK suggests to me that there are other social and cultural factors at play.
Hospital admissions statistics for violent injury have a strong whiff of alcohol about them - victims are still most likely to arrive late on a Friday or Saturday night, they are predominantly young men and women who have been drinking.
But our relationship with alcohol is changing. When Tony Blair suggested tackling violent and anti-social drinking by encouraging a Southern European cafe culture with more relaxed licensing rules, people scoffed and predicted mayhem.
But, actually, young people are drinking less and behaving better. In many places, the police, local authorities and the licensed trade work successfully together to manage the night-time economy - it may still be a far from edifying scene, but incidents of violence are much fewer and far between than they were.
Some people suggest that the rising price of alcohol is reducing consumption. Public health workers, campaigners and teachers will also claim credit for promoting a culture of responsible drinking.
The important word in that last sentence, I think, is culture. We are witnessing a cultural shift away from violence and aggression that is building upon itself.
It is cool to be cool.
A Home Office research study in 2003 concluded that, for many young Britons, fighting while drunk was seen as an inevitable fact of life. The report quotes a young woman saying: "I have a drink and I just want to fight anyone." A young man agrees: "It is part of our heritage. Like football matches, you always get a fight at the end."
Whether it's licensing laws or lead-free petrol that has been the catalyst, something appears to have changed such attitudes. Our society has become noticeably more intolerant of violence. Whether it is bar-room brawls, football hooliganism, domestic violence or hate crimes, the idea that such behaviour is "inevitable" or "none of our business" is now routinely challenged.
We may have reached a critical tipping point where aggression and violence are no longer acceptable as an inescapable feature of contemporary life. Corporal punishment is out. Anger-management is in.
It is tempting to see this change as part of a much longer phenomenon - the civilizing of our society over centuries. In the 14th century, Britain had murder rates akin to the Congo today. Violence was ubiquitous. Three hundred years later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' observation that life in nature was "nasty, brutish and short" still had justification.
Today, for those fortunate enough to live in the developed world, the chances of having one's life cut short through violence are probably lower than at almost any point in history. Intolerance of aggression and tolerance of difference have become social norms that make for a more peaceful and calm society.