Boris’s Imaginary Knife Crime Epidemic

KnivesEveryone, in London and beyond, will remember the horrendous knife-crime epidemic of early-2008. The story was spread far and wide – indeed, friends of mine from France and the United States mentioned it in conversation at the time. The opposition Conservative party and most of the British media picked up the story, and used it to show us just how dangerous life had become in Britain’s capital. It should have been a scary time for me, my friends and family here in London… but it wasn’t.

Why? Because the “knife crime epidemic” of 2008 was a lie. A scare story concocted by the (then in opposition) Conservative party, most of the British press, and in particular, London’s Evening Standard. The timing of the story was no coincidence; it came in the run-up to London’s mayoral election, in which the Conservative challenger, Boris Johnson, was to defeat Labour’s Ken Livingstone – London’s mayor from 2000 to 2008. Livingstone had a long record in London politics, having won the top job way back in the 1980s, and he was (and still is) hated by the conservative media, especially the Standard.

London is an incredibly safe city for its size – one of the world’s safest – but being a city of eight million people, it’s easy to find a violent crime to report any day of the week, if the press so chooses. Beginning in early-2008 the Standard suddenly began to pay more attention to violent crimes, and especially stabbings. There is roughly one murder every two days in London (New York sees around five times the number of murders), so the Standard quickly managed to create the impression that London was in the grip of a sudden surge in knife crimes, even though there was no surge. In fact, as you can see below, the knife crime rate in London has been fairly flat, and had been higher in 2004/5 than in 2008. Certainly, there is nothing that could be called an epidemic.

Crime rate 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008–09 2009–10
Knife enabled crime[34] 10305 12985 12367 12301 10699 12345 12611
Rate per 10,000 London 13.7 17.3 16.5 16.4 14.3 16.4 16.8

Source: Wikipedia Crime in London page

The knife-crime-epidemic-that-never-was contributed heavily to Boris Johnson’s victory in the May 2008 election, and has been resurrected regularly by the press ever since. It was also used by the increasingly authoritarian Labour government of the time to introduce draconian sentences for carrying a knife.

If there was an epidemic in London, it came after the mayoral election; and it wasn’t a knife crime epidemic, but a plague of police stop-and-searches, using the imaginary knife crime epidemic as an excuse, along with the never-ending “terrorist threat”. This new policy was carried out aggressively by the Metropolitan Police, with the strong backing of Mayor Boris, and disproportionately targeted young black and Asian men. This in turn created a surge in anger and resentment against the Metropolitan Police. When a young mixed-race man, Mark Duggan, was shot by police officers (who then lied that he had been carrying a gun), the anger boiled over and led to the Tottenham riots of 2011, which spread around the UK.

A “knife crime epidemic” invented by the Conservative Party and right-wing press in 2008, in order to get Boris Johnson elected mayor, had eventually led to harassment of hundreds of thousands of young men, and helped trigger last year’s riots. Boris has never admitted this dangerous lie, which has proved divisive and damaging to London. While the Standard yet again runs daily smear stories against Ken Livingstone for being “slimy”, nobody is holding Boris Johnson to account for unleashing brutal policing on London.