Are late night brawls a thing of the past?

Man drinking a pint

Our society is becoming significantly less violent. Today's figures suggesting a 12% year-on-year drop in admissions to English hospitals for violent injuries are just the latest evidence of a remarkable and welcome trend. Something extraordinary is happening.

The chances of being a victim of violent crime in Britain are half what they were less than 20 years ago. Murders are at their lowest level since the early 1980s.

It's not just in Britain. Violence appears to be falling in many developed countries, with no obvious common political or ideological driver.

The homicide rate has halved since the early 90s in Sweden, Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Netherlands, South Africa, Canada and the US, the list goes on, despite markedly different approaches to criminal justice and social policies.

So what is happening? One popular current theory is that the switch to lead-free petrol has reduced ingestion of a substance, which in substantial doses over a long period has known links to aggression. There is a striking correlation between a fall in violence and the introduction of unleaded fuel in different countries.

However, the continued substantial fall in serious violence in the UK suggests to me that there are other social and cultural factors at play.

Hospital admissions statistics for violent injury have a strong whiff of alcohol about them - victims are still most likely to arrive late on a Friday or Saturday night, they are predominantly young men and women who have been drinking.

But our relationship with alcohol is changing. When Tony Blair suggested tackling violent and anti-social drinking by encouraging a Southern European cafe culture with more relaxed licensing rules, people scoffed and predicted mayhem.

But, actually, young people are drinking less and behaving better. In many places, the police, local authorities and the licensed trade work successfully together to manage the night-time economy - it may still be a far from edifying scene, but incidents of violence are much fewer and far between than they were.

Some people suggest that the rising price of alcohol is reducing consumption. Public health workers, campaigners and teachers will also claim credit for promoting a culture of responsible drinking.

The important word in that last sentence, I think, is culture. We are witnessing a cultural shift away from violence and aggression that is building upon itself.

It is cool to be cool.

A Home Office research study in 2003 concluded that, for many young Britons, fighting while drunk was seen as an inevitable fact of life. The report quotes a young woman saying: "I have a drink and I just want to fight anyone." A young man agrees: "It is part of our heritage. Like football matches, you always get a fight at the end."

Whether it's licensing laws or lead-free petrol that has been the catalyst, something appears to have changed such attitudes. Our society has become noticeably more intolerant of violence. Whether it is bar-room brawls, football hooliganism, domestic violence or hate crimes, the idea that such behaviour is "inevitable" or "none of our business" is now routinely challenged.

We may have reached a critical tipping point where aggression and violence are no longer acceptable as an inescapable feature of contemporary life. Corporal punishment is out. Anger-management is in.

It is tempting to see this change as part of a much longer phenomenon - the civilizing of our society over centuries. In the 14th century, Britain had murder rates akin to the Congo today. Violence was ubiquitous. Three hundred years later, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes' observation that life in nature was "nasty, brutish and short" still had justification.

Today, for those fortunate enough to live in the developed world, the chances of having one's life cut short through violence are probably lower than at almost any point in history. Intolerance of aggression and tolerance of difference have become social norms that make for a more peaceful and calm society.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Steven Levitt offers a very interesting theory in the popular book 'Freakonomics'. He believes, backed up with data, that easy access to abortion means the children most likely to grow up to be violent criminals just aren't being born.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Nothing to do with 'cultural change'; violent crime always declines when times are hard economically.

    People can't afford to go out or drink as much.

    The Public Health lobby will claim the credit with no evidence whatsoever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Could it be possible that the reduction is in some way attributable to the excellent computer games that are now available. Realistic simulations of violence that give a healthy outlet for our aggressive tendencies.

    I certainly believe so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It is also worth noting that at the same time developed countries have shown a drop in religious observance and belief. One of the arguments for religion is that it is linked with general public morality. But there appears to be no linkage between crime and belief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Do some random hidden drive by in any sprawling UK housing estates Fri / Sat, I'm guessing most local Plods or A&E's know the real truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    @ 21

    ironinc isnt it, we fight against a big brother state, yet we are creating that ourselves, and the results are postive rather than negative....

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I think the increasing cost of a night out 'on the lash' has smoething to do with this. People are drinking more at home as its still very cheap. Not complaining though - any reduction in violence is welcome

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Here are some alternative theories;
    Normally ill-educated people fight, therefore with everyone getting 11 A* at GCSE there are not enough thick people left to reach a pub brawl quorum
    The rise of on-demand TV, the internet and computer gaming means we forgot to go to the pub.
    Men used to fight over women, maybe the proliferation of online porn eases those frustrations as men are more ahem relaxed

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    To me it's obvious. The crime rate is going down along with the increase in mobile devices with cameras on. If you act like an idiot, it's going to end up on youtube. The amount of portable devices with video ability has increased exponentially in the last 15 years. Whatever you do now is likely to be recorded by someone, somewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I missed Friday night ritual of old, a beer, curry or kebab and a fight over a woman...

    Being older and wiser I choose to have a beer and do astronomy in my back garden, should the weather allow. Who says humans can't adapt!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The only real crime deterrent is not being able to get away with it. The extensive use of CCTV and smart phones means that people don't think they can get away with it so they don't committ the crime. Being law abiding then becomes fashionable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I couldn't possibly comment until I've read the thoughts and perspective of Mega Awesume Pooster / Fortune / African Pele

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Given the role that overdosing on the recreational drug alcohol plays in most violence on our streets isn't it about time that the government started to put significant duty increases onto any alcohol - something like an additional £2 on a pint and £10 on a bottle of spirits would certainly have an impact

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    6 Little_Old_Me

    It would be hard to draw a direct link between the web-driven demise of Nuts magazine and a fall in violence on the streets. I was under the impression that it fostered more of a jovial, if breast-obsessed, lad culture that, while it may not have been entirely welcome, at least didn't advocate a Friday-night punch-up as the sine qua non of a perfect weekend.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    they do still happen but the police are so stretched that by the time they arrive the protaginists have left the area . cuts affect every aspect of our lives except for those at the top

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Not so sure about this. Male culture rather than drinking was/is a massive factor in violent crime today. In the 1990s, real hardcases were a novelty. Now, nearly every bloke I know under 40 [regardless of profession] does weight training, has a "don't mess with me attitude" and is influenced somehow by macho sports [MMA] or films. It would be nicer if people took themselves less seriously!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As usual, when something changes, along come the simpletons with their ground-breaking theories! It's lead-less petrol that's reduced crime! I've always bitten my nails, my toy cars had lead paint and always in my mouth and I played on a demolition site smashing up asbestos roofing sheets and once dismantled a radio-active detector. I'm 58, healthy and never even had a fight! Society is complex!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The youth of today are not the same rebellious, macho types of yesteryear...most of them wear jeans too tight for Kate Moss...

    However the crime figures and NHS reports are about as accurate and reliable as government stats usually are running up to an election when they want to tell how amazing it all is in this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Brawling & Excessive Alcohol go together and have done so, way back into the Middle Ages, look at hogarth's drawings from the 18th Century.
    culturally this country spends its spare cash on alcohol especially in the 16-25 age group, as the recovery gets under way, they will sadly return.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Whatever the cause it is good news unless you are one of the people who predicted an increase due to "the cuts".


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