It isn’t often that my scribblings steal a march on the rather brighter brains of Downing Street. But when it comes to Ben Rogers’ new plans on special training for “have-a-go-heroes”, I like to think I was there first.
As today’s Daily Telegraph reports, Mr Rogers, an ex-advisor to Tony Blair and now a visiting fellow at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, wants a new system of “citizens’ training” to give members of the public the confidence to tackle anti-social behaviour in the streets. He says we’ve become a “walk-on by” society where people are scared to intervene, but with a bit of schooling in restraint techniques, the power of the law-abiding majority could be properly restored.
I made this argument myself back in June 2008, pointing out that while “lawless” countries like Iraq and Afghanistan had no proper police forces, they suffered little of the low-level anti-social behaviour problems that Britain did. One factor in this – in my experience anyway – is that in countries where there is no such thing as dialling 999, the so-called “policeman in the head” is rather more vigilant. A thief in a market in Baghdad may not have to worry about a court appearance, but he will worry about the kicking he will receive from everyone else if he gets caught. In Britain, by contrast, that same inner policeman has effectively been suspended from duty for the last few decades, worried that he will face court himself if he tries a citizen’s arrest. This may stop Britain being ruled by mob justice, but it also removes a certain powerful deterrent effect from our streets, leading to the some of the sad situations today in which it is the yob, not the mob, who rules.
I have personal reasons to feel strongly about this. In 1997, I was beaten up on a train after telling off three teenagers who were harrassing a mentally handicapped woman. In retrospect, I was lucky: rather than getting stabbed, which is something that teenage hotheads in South London are rather fond of doing, I got away with eight stitches to my face and some minor bruises. What was galling, though, was that nobody else in the train carriage, which was about a third full, backed me up beforehand, save for an old lady. Afterwards, once my attackers had casually sauntered off the train, there was all manner of sympathetic words from onlookers, not to mention a few pathetic comments that the woman had somehow “asked for it” by trying to answer the gang back. But by then it was a bit late. Had more people stood alongside me at the time, including some of the other adult males present, the three kids might not have felt bold enough to attack me in the first place.
Ever since then, I’ve thought that some kind of citizens’ training to make people overcome their nerves in these situations would be a good idea. The fact is that most law-abiding citizens, like me, aren’t much use at fighting. I don’t do it in everyday life, so when I am up against someone who does, I am likely to get beaten in just the same way as I might beat them at some more civilised activity like squash. What the law-abiding majority does generally have, though, is strength in numbers, which can prevail in many situations. Surely our “have-a-go-hero” classes could devise restraint techniques to capitalise on numerical advantage as much as possible, and to overcome the inertia that paralyses people in crowd situations. Even those who don’t want to get involved directly could help, for example by remaining cool-headed enough to get a detailed description of the culprits’ appearance. It’s normally the last thing you notice in the heat of the moment, and the first thing the police ask for afterwards.
As I say, I’m no expert on street-fighting, and have no idea how practical these kind of proposals are. But given the level of public disquiet about yobbery in Britain, I think there’d be an enthusiastic take-up rate were the police able to devise some sort of training. As Mr Rogers points out, there is no point in talking about the Big Society, “active citizenship” or “community cohesion” if we fail to come to fellow citizens’ aid just when they really need it.