From time to time I’ve been accused of using a narrow gauge when claiming the UK is a failing or failed state. The hecklers claim poor infrastructure, poorer transport systems, an underfunded defence force, sagging state schools, a confused immigration force and a hobbled public service broadcaster (particularly its international arm) do not tally up to constitute a failed state.
I heartily disagree and feel things have gone from bad to worse off the back of the UK’s recent Budget (Pastygate? Honestly!). I’ll add policing and domestic security as another area where the government is failing – badly.
Statistics are wonderful things to sift through and misinterpret, which is why I believe anecdotal evidence is much more compelling and useful. Having lived in London for more than 20 years, I’ve been able to count on one hand the number of people I know first hand who’ve been mugged. There have been plenty of friends who’ve had their bags or wallets lifted at pubs and cafés, the odd break-in (I count myself in this group), bikes nicked and car windows smashed but thankfully no muggings or similar random acts of violence.
In the past three weeks there’s been a severe crime spike in my immediate circle of friends and colleagues. It started with one of our researchers being poked in both eyes and having his mobile yanked from his hand by two hooligans on scooters (the police said it happened to seven other people in the Marylebone area in 45 minutes on the same evening); a few days later another colleague was punched when he couldn’t offer a light; one of our news presenters was punched in the face; my former assistant had his phone taken from him; and on Friday evening another bunch of hooligans (also on a scooter) rode up on the pavement and tried to steal a phone from one of our producers. Fortunately, the phone fell to the ground and the assailants were too flustered to go after it and sped off.
I relayed these stories to a diplomat friend who lives in the area and she said her husband and two colleagues from her embassy had been victim to similar incidents.
Disgusted and annoyed that such events were happening on my front doorstep, I called the police and asked to speak to someone in charge of my neighbourhood. One day passed. Two. Three. A week. No response. After the second scooter incident (steps away from our office) I called again, explained I’d called once and asked why my call hadn’t been returned:
Operator: “Well, you see, sir, we’re very busy and doing the best we can.”
Me: “I can imagine. However, I think calls should be returned regardless.”
Operator: “What would you like me to do?”
Me: “I’d like someone to return my call – particularly after a week. As someone who pays company tax, personal tax and employs another hundred plus people who also pay taxes, I think you have a duty to provide better customer service.”
Operator: “Sir, sir. Police pay taxes, too, you know?”
Me: “And your point? I run a private sector company and have no trouble returning customer phone calls. I think public sector [agencies], Operating in the interest of the People, should do the same.”
Sensing that the call wasn’t going anywhere, I took my case number and returned to watching Downton Abbey – season two.
On Saturday morning, during my run around Regent’s Park, I stopped in front of the US ambassador’s residence and introduced myself to the diplomatic police standing guard. I explained my dilemma and what was going on.
“You need to rattle some cages, boss,” said one. “Sounds like you’ve got a real problem there and you need a response.”
“Yup. You need to kick some cages,” said his colleague. “That’s what gets action.”
A few hours later I was standing in the reception of our local police station with my colleague Andrew. While we waited to chat to the man at the duty desk, we wondered how much the Metropolitan Police spent annually on printing and lamination – every vertical and horizontal was covered with notices about victims, offenders and the standard health and safety propaganda that pollutes most modern workplaces. The only problem was that the police station was anything but modern, and inspired little or no confidence in the system. After a short lecture about the workings of crime in London and the drawbacks of us not being a crime hotspot, we had to interrupt.
“What happened to the concept of deterrence?” we asked in unison.
“You see, boss,” said the duty officer. “It’s about statistics. My managers need to see statistics so they can let Cameron know. That’s why you need to report every crime; so then they know there’s a problem and we can put more cops on it.”
Managers instead of constables? No deterrence? Stats for the PM? We walked out of the station and headed back to the office, frustrated that our rattling had little impact.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule