26 APRIL 2003, Page 40

An end to cant and defeatism

Neil Clark


Atlantic Books, 116.99, pp. 315, ISBN 1843541483

It's fair to say that Peter Hitchens remains one of the most misrepresented figures in the British media. As a pro-marriage, anti-war, social conservative who supports the monarchy and renationalisation of the railways, Hitchens poses problems for those who love to fit their pundits into neat left/right, liberal/authoritarian pigeon-holes. Erroneously labelled a 'crazed right-wing monster', Hitchens is in reality one of the most thought-provoking and intelligent commentators on life in contemporary Britain, and someone with whom the traditional Left can find much common ground.

In A Brief History of Crime, the author concerns himself with a topic which has long troubled him, namely Britain's seemingly irreversible decline into lawlessness. Hitchens contends that 'the wicked, the loud, the selfish, and the violent' are freer from restraint than they have been since the age of Charles Dickens. No one who lives on a council estate or who has witnessed the scenes of disorder which take place in our towns and cities each Friday and Saturday night would surely disagree.

The core of Hitchens' thesis is that unless as a society we acknowledge the extent of the problem and concentrate on decisively punishing 'wicked actions', our ancient civil liberties will be increasingly threatened. Blunkett's draconian antiterrorist legislation, the European Arrest Warrant, the scrapping of the double jeopardy rule and the threats to trial by jury are all evidence of the illiberal direction we are heading in under New Labour — measures which to Hitchens pose 'the gravest threat to English liberty since the 17th century'.

Hitchens believes that the solution to combating lawlessness lies in turning the clock hack — to the days when our police patrolled the streets in an attempt to prevent crime, rather than speeding through our town centres merely reacting to it; to the days when prisons were prisons and not university halls of residence; and to the days when murder, a 'crime of unique horror', was punishable by a unique punishment. In short, we need to return to the days before that legendary luncher and Hitchens' public enemy number one, Roy Jenkins, wreaked his havoc at the Home

Office. Hitchens' arguments for the reintroduction of the death penalty are particularly compelling. Far from being inhumane, capital punishment is, in fact, society's most civilised response to murder, as no other punishment warrants the victim the respect he/she deserves. Hitchens rightly scoffs at the 'laughably inconsistent' abolitionist case, and at those pro-war 'humanitarians' (Clare Short and Nick Cohen spring readily to mind) who would denounce the execution of Dr Harold Shipman as 'barbaric' but would accept the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in a war against Iraq as 'a price worth paying'.

Hitchens also hits the bull's-eye when denouncing the MacPherson Report as 'racist', for bringing to an end colour-blind policing in Britain, and when he attacks the 'defeatist' attitude of the British establishment to drugs control, personified by the ludicrously self-promoting Commander Brian Paddick — 'an exemplar of so much that is wrong'.

Where Hitchens is on shakier ground, though, is in his oft-repeated assertion that 'egalitarianism' in itself is a major cause of crime. Sorry, Peter, but I'll take my chances in the back streets of Oslo at 2 o'clock in the morning any time. flitchens mistakenly regards New Labour Britain, a country where the richest 1 per cent own 25 per cent of the nation's wealth, as 'egalitarian' and 'socialistic'. He is, I believe, guilty of confusing 'egalitarianism', which builds social cohesion and thereby helps reduce crime, with Britain's own hybrid form of welfare capitalism, which does indeed encourage greed, selfishness, dependency and social decay.

In any case, a belief in fair shares for all need not and should not preclude the need for deterrence, proper punishment and all the other eminently sensible anti-crime measures Hitchens proposes. I expect I am not alone in wondering why signing up for public ownership, redistributive taxation and free school meals also means assenting to prisons being run as holiday camps, suspended sentences and the whole rag-bag of ill-thought-out penal policies so beloved by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

'Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime' has up to now proved to be an empty slogan. But if the conservative poli cies on law and order which Hitchens advocates can be combined with the egalitarianism he claims to detest, we may still all be saved.