On first glance, one might think there isn’t much of a comparison between a rise in crime during wartime, often under the cover of night, during a period of 6 years, and any rise in crime during the modern day – specifically the last decade. Although the story of the spike in crime is less often told, coming, as it does, into contradiction with the powerful images WWII evokes of pulling together, wartime spirit and unity against a common enemy, it is not hard to imagine how, under the cover of the Blackout and Blitz, criminals may spot an opportunity.
This window of opportunity was exploited by one Billy Hill, “the dapper gangster from Seven Dials central London”, who predicted, correctly, that with the outbreak of war, young men, including police officers, would be off in their droves to join up, and this would lead to a weakened police force. The war required reservists – men who had recently been soldiers – to return to the army or navy, so that the *much reduced* British army could benefit from trained soldiers. Many police officers were reservists, and many more were young enough to serve in the armed forces, and so volunteered. Although the government sought to limit the inevitable reduction in police numbers that would result from this, by restricting numbers of who might volunteer, and older officers delaying their retirement or enlisting as special or reserve constables, this didn’t prevent the initial shortage – 3,000 reservists left the police force to serve their former military units towards the end of 1939, and another 16,500 would volunteer over the course of the war. Despite making up the numbers with reservists, older officers delaying retirement and more women police officers than ever before, there was, nonetheless, an initial fall in police numbers as a result, and even when the numbers had been made up, a police force that was in some parts older and in other parts less experienced will no doubt have weakened their effectiveness. This allowed criminals like Billy Hill to flourish through jewellery theft, and sales on the black market of whisky and sausage skins, due to rationing limiting the availability of such items.
There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the fall in police numbers in our country today. Since 2010, the Conservative government has cut 21,000 police officers, as part of its austerity programme. As Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Ed Balls, argued in 2010, when the initially planned cut of 20,000 police officers was first announced, this “is the biggest cut to our police for a century, outside of wartime.” That Balls made the distinction between peace and war time for police cuts is obviously important; it is understandable that police numbers will likely fall when sending people off to fight a war, especially if, as was the case in WWII, many police officers are ex-military.
What is remarkable about comparing the Second World War fall in police numbers with the fall in the modern day is that the latter was not to serve a greater aim of defence of the realm, but part of a more general policy of reduction in public spending. This proved controversial in many quarters – indeed, in the 2017 general election, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, specifically argued in the wake of two terrorist attacks that police cuts were in part to blame, and that ‘you can’t protect the public on the cheap’ – a particularly damaging attack on the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, who had been Home Secretary at the time of the coalition government that announced these cuts. May had also faced fierce criticism during the course of the campaign about police cuts – the Police Federation had warned her as Home Secretary on numerous occasions about the dangers of cutting police officers to the public’s safety, and she had responded by accusing the Police Federation of ‘crying wolf’.
Whatever the reason for police cuts, there is nonetheless a clear pattern in similar criminal activity between the Second World War and the last decade. Theft, or ‘looting’ and violence are problems that have never gone away, as are fraud (particularly aided in the modern day by the internet), murder, sexual assualt (which has taken on a much greater significance in today’s media in the wake of the #MeToo movement), and juvenile delinquency. All of these may have taken different forms in the Second World War than in the period from 2010 to the present day, but they all will have happened for similar reasons.
For some, the increase in these crimes will have been a case of opportunity, as with Billy Hill; although there was a few years’ delay between police cuts in the modern day and the subsequent overall rise in crime, unlike in the Second World War, then as former Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Kirkham argued in early 2018, the likely reason that fatal stabbings took place on New Year’s Eve 2017 in the suburbs was due to existing officers being diverted to the celebrations in inner London, because of the overall lack of officers. It could be argued that the lack of police officers in the suburbs, therefore, created the opportunity, whether or not the perpetrators knew of the shortage, for them to get away with such crimes. Kirkham has on more than one occasion placed the blame for rises in knife crime and other criminal activity at the doors of Theresa May’s government cuts to policing, and there is a notable comparison between the officers in the Second World War who delayed their retirement and the officers in the modern day who Kirkham argues have had ‘rare leave days’ cancelled and 12 hour shifts extended to 16 hours. For others, for example in the case of shoplifting, it could be out of desperation by people to feed their families. As with the Second World War and the rise in the black market, many offenders in this instance have had no prior criminal convictions, but changes in the law or material circumstance caused them to fall foul of it.
This analysis barely scratches the surface of potential comparisons between the rise in crime, and in specific types of criminality during WWII, and the rise in overall crime and specific types of crime since 2010. Naturally, the differing time, contexts, and the ways in which such crimes are committed and recorded will have a significant impact on these stories and statistics. But it raises important questions about criminality in general, and what lessons we can take from spikes in crime in the past to dealing with rises and spikes in crime today. To understand and tackle the proliferation of crime requires an understanding of its root causes – what leads people to commit crime? Is it ignorance of new legislation? Is it a greater degree of opportunity, often through an understaffed or overworked police force? A desperate attempt to feed one’s self and one’s family out of desperation, particularly when times are tough?
Through Things to Do In A Blackout, we hope to explore this further, and to examine how, to borrow a phrase, we can be both ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’.