The riddle of peacefulness

Policeman hands out balloons in Manchester

The UK Peace Index, published on Tuesday, attempts to answer a fascinating question: why has our country become "substantially and significantly" more peaceful?

Having set itself this conundrum, however, the UKPI - published by the Institute for Economics and Peace - cannot come up with a convincing answer, not least because the decrease in violence is not confined to Britain. In fact, a similar phenomenon can be seen in almost every developed nation.

The report notes that "there is no commonly accepted explanation by criminologists for the fall in violence in many of the world's regions including the US, Western Europe, Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the UK".

It goes on to admit that "many of the more common theories" refuse to stand up to scrutiny. The global financial crisis has seen many countries suffer severely in economic terms and yet levels of peacefulness have increased. The idea that violent crime goes up when the economy goes down is not backed by the evidence.

Do more police officers mean fewer acts of violence? "The result is seemingly counterintuitive," admits the peace index report. The correlation between policing levels and violent crime in the UK is "very weak", it concludes.

PDF download UK Peace Index [6.1MB]

Any specific relationship between police numbers and murder, gun crime or public disorder is "even weaker", the analysis finds. "This suggests that the reductions in police numbers have not played a significant role in either reducing or increasing crime."

The link between violent crime levels and criminal justice policy seems thin. After all, violence has fallen in most developed nations irrespective of their use of prisons, the severity of sentences or the activities of law enforcement officers.

% change in total recorded crime
Institute for Economics and Peace figures Source: Institute for Economics and Peace

The analysis searches for correlations between violence levels and other factors. Looking at the list of most and least peaceful local authorities, it is obvious that relatively prosperous rural areas are more peaceful than deprived urban areas.

Most peaceful in England and Wales

  1. Broadland, Norfolk
  2. Three Rivers, Hertfordshire
  3. South Cambridgeshire
  4. East Dorset
  5. Maldon, Essex

And least peaceful - all in London:

  1. Lewisham
  2. Lambeth
  3. Hackney
  4. Newham
  5. Tower Hamlets

The 17 most violent authorities in the UK are all London boroughs which contain pockets of extreme poverty, while the most peaceful places tend to be wealthier areas in the south and east of England.

The analysis concludes that "peace is strongly linked to deprivation in income, employment opportunities, health and disability, education and in access to housing and services". However, inequality does not seem to be such a strong correlate with violence.

"The disparity between income levels (the Gini coefficient), while still significant, has a much weaker correlation with peace than poverty'," the report notes.

This goes against a number of research papers which have suggested it is the gap between rich and poor that matters, rather than poverty itself, when it comes to public disorder and violent crime.

The researchers claim that when individuals and families live below a certain level of income and struggle to meet day-to-day needs, this "increases the chance of living in violent communities with anti-social behaviour".

Most peaceful in Scotland

  1. Orkney Islands
  2. Aberdeenshire
  3. Moray
  4. Shetland Islands
  5. Dumfries & Galloway

And least peaceful

  1. Glasgow City
  2. West Dunbartonshire
  3. Renfrewshire
  4. North Ayrshire
  5. Inverclyde

If this is correct, it would suggest that during tough economic times, one might expect to see violence levels rise. But as the report itself points out, this does not appear to be happening during the current downturn.

Perhaps it is too early for the impact to have fed through, but I do wonder whether the analysis is focusing on traditional social and criminal justice theories when the answer to the quite remarkable drop in violence may lie somewhere else entirely.

If one accepts that this phenomenon is affecting developed nations across the planet irrespective of their domestic policies, it seems logical that we are seeing the consequence of a global effect.

Could it be that global communication, particularly the internet, is having a civilising and calming effect on people's behaviour? We live in an age when, for the first time in history, people from all backgrounds can get an understanding of how the rest of the world lives without needing to leave the comfort of their living room.

This mass socialising may be changing attitudes. In the UK there is good evidence that people are becoming more tolerant of difference and less tolerant of violence.

Most peaceful in Northern Ireland

  1. Castlereagh
  2. Ballymoney
  3. Magherafelt
  4. Armagh
  5. Moyle

And least peaceful

  1. Belfast
  2. Foyle
  3. Coleraine
  4. Cookstown
  5. Antrim

Behaviour that may once have been accepted with a sad shrug now demands a political response. Attitudes towards domestic violence, child abuse and drunken aggression have changed enormously in the past few decades, both at an administrative and social level.

It will be interesting to see, for example, how the international outrage at the rape and sexual abuse of some women in India affects behaviour in the sub-continent. In the UK, scandals around historic acts of violence - notably the Jimmy Savile case - may also reflect what might be called a new morality.

I am often impressed by the way in which school children campaign against discrimination and prejudice. Youngsters are very quick to accuse parents of being sexist or racist or some other -ist following the most innocuous remarks.

The riddle of peacefulness remains a riddle. But there is huge value in trying to understand what is happening - not least for the day when the figures start to move the other way.

Broadland in Norfolk was named the most peaceful local council area

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

Savile: 'How could this be allowed to happen?'

Today's investigation into Jimmy Savile reveals how his criminal behaviour "was facilitated by ministers or civil servants".

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    Which part of the UK is this based on? Definitely not the area my family live!

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    The IEP report falls into its own trap. In trying to evaluate the evidence behind the reduction in crime, it presents evidence of its own which is fundamentally incapable of answering the question. The link between factors such as the economy, police numbers, the CJS and crime is not 'weak', it's 'complicated', and any analysis which does not take account of this is flawed. Easton should know that

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Mr Easton, do you have a financial stake in sales of Prof. Steven Pinker's book 'The Better Angels of our Nature per chance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    There is a simple reason why people are generally more passive these days, and it is due to widespread use of Fluoride in the water supply.

    This is not new..Hitler did the same to water in his rise to power in the 1930's. He didn't do so to improve the condition of peoples teeth, he did it because Fluoride depresses that center of the brain that controls aggressive behavior.

    Check it out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    Even if violence in the UK dropped to 0 Im sure we'd all be groaning about how everything is so much worse than before. The fact of the matter is we consume less alcohol, are older & reject child abuse more than 50 or even 15 years ago. And it cant all be put down to under-reporting. Last time I checked murders didnt generally go unnoticed


Comments 5 of 242



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.