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Idris Elba's knife crime campaign highlights the need to rediscover solutions to an age-old problem

Police tactics like stop and search can help but a long-term resolution requires social interventions, support for troubled families, youth facilities, education, jobs and housing

This is the subject of my latest Scotsman column, published today 6th February 2024.

Here’s a pub quiz question for you: What do 1950s crooner Frankie Vaughan and present-day TV star Idris Elba have in common? They both felt compelled to use their celebrity to intervene in the perennial problems of youth gangs and knife crime.

Appalled by their levels of violence, Frankie Vaughan famously tried to broker peace between Glasgows gangs in the 1960s, while Idris Elba has recently taken up the cause in response to high knife crime in England’s suburbs, particularly the prevalence of large machetes or ‘zombie knives’.

Credit to both for shining a light on an old problem. And Idris Elba is right, it’s ridiculous that zombie knives are on open sale, they have no practical use other than as macho props and giving inadequate young men false confidence.

But I have some bad news, banning them alone will do little to reduce knife crime. Sadly the most common bladed murder weapon is the kitchen knife. There’s always a blade available to those who want one.

Glasgow razor gangs

The problem of knives and youth gangs goes back centuries and tactics to suppress them are well known. In the 19th century, Victorian slums were a breeding ground for youth gangs, while in the early 20th-century ‘Peaky Blinders’ and Glasgow’s razor gangs terrorised communities.

They were subdued by a combination of enforcement and social reform. Slum clearance in the mid-Victorian period did much to improve living conditions, while in the 1930s dynamic Glasgow police chief Percy Sillitoe wrote the book on tackling gangs: gather intelligence, cultivate informants, harness forensic science, and impose a robust enforcement model with severe court sentences.

Sillitoe’s recipe worked then and still works today, but only as a short-term fix if social improvements are absent. That’s why the problem reoccurs every decade or so. Youth gangs are usually local and connected to a neighbourhood, a flag of convenience like a football club. They are often led by a handful of strong personalities whose removal may collapse the group.

Killed by their own blade

The tactics for breaking up gangs and suppressing the carrying of weapons are well tested, such as the now controversial practice of ‘stop and search’. Here we must face facts. ‘Stop and search’ isn’t a long-term strategy but is a highly effective short-term tactic if applied intelligently.

If the problem is young black men stabbing other young black men, then the targets for stop and search will not be a cross-section of the community, but young black men. To do otherwise is nonsense.

Unfortunately, as fear over knife crime spreads, it leads to more being carried. Some young men, fearful for their safety, start to carry them for self-defence, often resulting in tragedy. Many a young man has been killed by his own blade.

But if the tactics against such gangs are well known, long-term resolution can only be achieved by social interventions, support for troubled families, youth facilities, education, jobs and housing. We know what works but our cultural amnesia still allows our social and youth services to be defunded over time, only to be reinvented a few decades later in the face of emergency.

We should wish Idris Elba well in this latest campaign against gangs and knives. The answers are all there, we just have to rediscover them.

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