11. Crime and Punishment

The causes of the riots

Blog post for the Telegraph written in the immediate aftermath of the riots that engulfed many of England’s cities for four days in the summer of 2011. It was published on 11th August 2011.

Tottenham riots 3a

Towards the beginning of Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s masterpiece about a group of teenage boys marooned on a desert island, a scene takes place in which the most vicious of the boys, Roger, throws stones at a younger boy whose sandcastle he’s just knocked down:

Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.

Rupert Myers, a barrister, quotes this passage in an interesting article about the riots in the Lawyer. He makes the point that the law cannot be upheld by the naked exercise of state power alone. To a great extent it depends upon consent. There is a whole network of feelings and beliefs, some of them conscious, others not, reinforced by conventions and taboos, that underpins the rule of law. Once these constraints fall away, the whole edifice becomes much more fragile. If the sole bulwark against anarchy is fear of getting caught – fear of the police and the punishment the lawbreakers will receive if they’re hauled before the courts – then the centre cannot hold.

It was this fear that evaporated in some of England’s cities on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights. Among crowds of young people, the collective belief in the power of the state collapsed and, to paraphrase Yeats, the blood-dimmed tide was loosed. There was a kind of mass realisation, reinforced by the television coverage, that if enough people broke the law simultaneously the police were powerless to do anything about it.

It’s tempting when assessing the causes of these riots to blame the police and the courts for being too soft  – and, by extension, the social liberalism of politicians on both side of the divide, with their concern for human rights and reluctance to appear too authoritarian. (See John McTernan’s column in today’s Telegraph for a powerful expression of this view.) Certainly, the immediate remedy is to strengthen police numbers, give them the license to respond to outbreaks of disorder more robustly and instruct the courts to hand out tougher sentences. Who knows, these changes may even become permanent as public opinion on law and order takes a hard Right turn. In light of recent events, Kenneth Clarke’s proposed reforms of the criminal justice system and the Government’s cuts to the police seem completely idiotic – a gold embossed invitation to criminals to run riot. The Sun and the Daily Mail had it right.

But in the long term we’ll have to address the deeper causes of these riots. Fear of getting caught will never be enough – the rule of law depends upon consent. By “deeper causes” I don’t mean social deprivation or youth unemployment. The eye-opening revelation of the Court hearings today and yesterday is that there’s no such thing as a typical rioter, as Andrew Gilligan makes clear in his vivid account. So far, those arrested and charged include an 11-year-old girl, a 31-year-old primary school teacher and the 19-year-old daughter of a company director who is currently at Exeter University. The participation of those from relatively affluent backgrounds, either in full-time education or full-time employment, makes a nonsense of the knee-jerk responses of Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman, blaming cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance, among other things.

However, the fact that the rioters defy easy classification should also give conservatives pause for thought. In the House of Commons today, David Cameron said that tackling gang culture would be a “national priority”, but the 17-year-old ballerina who appeared in Westminster magistrates court for stealing two television sets from the Croydon branch of Richer Sounds isn’t a gang member. Some of the rioters in London were African-Carribean teenage boys, to be sure, but we don’t even know at this stage if they were in the majority and, judging from the television pictures, most of the rioters in Birmingham and Salford were white. It seems likely that those involved in the disturbances were not, predominantly, from one ethnic group or from any particular socio-economic background. The sickness that David Cameron referred to on the steps of Downing Street yesterday is endemic and all-pervasive.

The root of the problem is that the bonds of civilisation – the whole panoply of conventions and taboos that Golding refers to in the above passage – have become too weak. In our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, the only values that command anything like universal assent are procedural ones – ethics, rather than morality. We’ve been taught to value tolerance and mutual respect and to abhor racism and homophobia – essential conventions if all the different “communities” are to get along – without being asked to believe in anything substantial to anchor those conventions in. On the contrary, the prevailing orthodoxy that’s taught in our schools and universities is that one set of substantive moral values is no better than any other and to claim otherwise is to risk appearing racist or sexist. Indeed, there’s a widespread belief that the survival of the procedural conventions depends upon a general skepticism about anything deeper or more meaningful – that the one strengthens the other. In fact, as we witnessed in England’s cities earlier this week, moral relativism does not lead to peace, love and understanding but to a kind of Hobbesian nihilism. Far from propping up the procedural values we’ve come to depend on, moral relativism has left them fatally weakened. As Yeats observed in his prophetic poem, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

This is what Angela Merkel had in mind when she talked about the failure of multiculturalism and what David Cameron meant when he said we had to reject the wishy-washy liberalism of the progressive Left in favour of something more muscular and robust. Where they’re both wrong is in thinking that the problem lies with ethnic or religious minorities who refuse to embrace our liberal democratic values and the framework or rights and responsibilities that goes with them. Clearly, that is a problem when it comes to certain sections of our Muslim populations, but the bigger challenge is how to persuade our indigenous peoples to embrace those values. As Daniel Hannan points out in a blog post today, the response of Tariq Jahon, a Muslim, to his son’s death in Birmingham on Monday night was more authentically British than the behaviour of the Caucasians who looted the Bullring. The same goes for members of other ethnic groups who stood up to the rioters:

The Turkish shopkeepers and restaurateurs who patrolled Dalston, the Sikhs who stood with drawn swords before their temple, are reacting as generations of British people reacted in similar circumstances. Rather than simply whining about the failure of the state, they took responsibility.

The problem with multiculturalism is not that different ethnic and religious groups can never peacefully co-exist, or that certain immigrant groups can never be persuaded to embrace our way of life. Rather, it’s the taboo it introduces against the teaching of substantive moral values to anyone, not just members of particular “communities”. It creates a general reluctance to promote any values other than procedural ones. The result is far too many people cast adrift, black and white alike, imagining they believe in something only to discover, when social order breaks down, that they believe in nothing.

Perhaps the root of the problem is the progressive Left’s conviction that mankind is essentially good. After all, if you think human beings are fundamentally benign and altruistic, then failing to teach them about right and wrong isn’t going to pose any major problems. They’ll just get along regardless. But the lesson of Lord of the Flies is that this is sentimental and naive. Released from the bonds of civilisation, human beings will quickly descend into cruel, atavistic creatures who pursue their own selfish interests at the expense of everyone else’s. Sigmund Freud got it right when he pointed out that men are not gentle creatures who just want to be loved. On the contrary, they are fundamentally territorial and aggressive:

As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?

That’s what we witnessed during the four days of rioting – Homo homini lupus. It’s a mistake to see the rioters as belonging to a particular ethnic group or as being “outsiders”, as some local MPs claimed. They were just ordinary people who’ve been insufficiently socialised, members of all communities and none. What they lack isn’t material wealth or meaningful employment, but a moral framework that enables them to see that smashing shop windows and setting fire to cars – and stealing – is wrong.

For four nights, those precious six yards that protected the boy in Lord of the Flies were breached. Unless we reject the moral relativism that has led to this sickness, they’ll be breached again.


Hate Crime Hoaxes and Why They Happen by Wilfred Reilly, Commentary, May 2019

Sexual offending runs in families: A 37-year nationwide study‘, Niklas Långström, Kelly M Babchishin, Seena Fazel, Paul Lichtenstein, Thomas Frisell, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 44, Issue 2, 1st April 2015, Pages 713–720


Background: Sexual crime is an important public health concern. The possible causes of sexual aggression, however, remain uncertain.

Methods: We examined familial aggregation and the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to sexual crime by linking longitudinal, nationwide Swedish crime and multigenerational family registers. We included all men convicted of any sexual offence (N = 21 566), specifically rape of an adult (N = 6131) and child molestation (N = 4465), from 1973 to 2009. Sexual crime rates among fathers and brothers of sexual offenders were compared with corresponding rates in fathers and brothers of age-matched population control men without sexual crime convictions. We also modelled the relative influence of genetic and environmental factors to the liability of sexual offending.

Results: We found strong familial aggregation of sexual crime [odds ratio (OR) = 5.1, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 4.5–5.9] among full brothers of convicted sexual offenders. Familial aggregation was lower in father-son dyads (OR = 3.7, 95% CI = 3.2–4.4) among paternal half-brothers (OR = 2.1, 95% CI = 1.5–2.9) and maternal half-brothers (OR = 1.7, 95% CI = 1.2–2.4). Statistical modelling of the strength and patterns of familial aggregation suggested that genetic factors (40%) and non-shared environmental factors (58%) explained the liability to offend sexually more than shared environmental influences (2%). Further, genetic effects tended to be weaker for rape of an adult (19%) than for child molestation (46%).

Conclusions: We report strong evidence of familial clustering of sexual offending, primarily accounted for by genes rather than shared environmental influences. Future research should possibly test the effectiveness of selective prevention efforts for male first-degree relatives of sexually aggressive individuals, and consider familial risk in sexual violence risk assessment.

Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies‘, Rhee, Soo Hyun, Waldman, Irwin D. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 128(3), May 2002, 490-529
A meta-analysis of 51 twin and adoption studies was conducted to estimate the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior. The best fitting model included moderate proportions of variance due to additive genetic influences (.32), nonadditive genetic influences (.09), shared environmental influences (.16), and nonshared environmental influences (.43). The magnitude of familial influences (i.e., both genetic and shared environmental influences) was lower in parent-offspring adoption studies than in both twin studies and sibling adoption studies. Operationalization, assessment method, zygosity determination method, and age were significant moderators of the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior, but there were no significant differences in the magnitude of genetic and environmental influences for males and females.

Evidence for substantial genetic risk for psychopathy in 7‐year‐olds‘, Essi Viding, R. James R. Blair, Terrie E. Moffitt, Robert Plomin, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 18th February 2005


Background:  Individuals with early warning signs of life‐long psychopathy, callous‐unemotional traits (CU) and high levels of antisocial behaviour (AB) can be identified in childhood. We report here the first twin study of high levels of psychopathic tendencies in young children.

Methods:  At the end of the first school year, teachers provided ratings of CU and AB for 3687 twin pairs from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). For the analyses of extreme CU, we selected same‐sex twin pairs where at least one twin scored 1.3 or more standard deviations above the mean on the CU scale (612 probands, 459 twin pairs). For the analysis of extreme AB, we selected same‐sex twin pairs where at least one twin scored 1.3 or more standard deviations above the mean on AB scale (444 probands, 364 twin pairs). Furthermore, the extreme AB sample was divided into those who were also extreme on CU (children with psychopathic tendencies; 234 probands, 187 twin pairs) and those who did not score in the extreme for CU (children without psychopathic tendencies; 210 probands, 177 twin pairs).

Results:  DeFries–Fulker extremes analysis indicated that exhibiting high levels of CU is under strong genetic influence. Furthermore, separating children with AB into those with high and low levels of CU showed striking results: AB in children with high levels of CU is under extremely strong genetic influence and no influence of shared environment, whereas AB in children with low levels of CU shows moderate genetic and shared environmental influence.

Conclusions:  The remarkably high heritability for CU, and for AB children with CU, suggests that molecular genetic research on antisocial behaviour should focus on the CU core of psychopathy. Our findings also raise questions for public policy on interventions for antisocial behaviour.