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Why London's stabbings are capturing the nation's attention

Police at the scene of a stabbing on Park Lane in London. Photo/Getty Images

Last year, British newspapers ran a story that shocked Londoners.

The city, said the headlines, had a higher murder rate than New York. It was like reading that London was sunnier than Sydney or cheaper than Bangkok. Surely it wasn’t possible.

On closer inspection, it turned out that over the course of the year, London was slightly safer, murder-wise. But only slightly.

In 1980, when I first went to New York as a backpacking 18-year-old, I was about 10 times more likely to be killed there than back home. The streets positively bristled with the promise of violence. I remember accidentally knocking into someone on the subway and almost booking myself a ticket to the morgue. What’s happened in the intervening years?

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In fact, the murder rate dropped in both cities, but far more steeply in New York. And in London, after a long spell of falling, the rate began climbing again in 2014. Last year, a spate of stabbings, particularly among teenage boys, became the subject of much heated debate but little effective action.

It isn’t as if the city’s streets feel particularly dangerous, but violent crime is steadily growing and there is a sense that more and more young men feel obliged to carry a knife.

Some have attributed the upsurge in knife crime to drug gangs. Many politicians, including the mayor, Sadiq Khan, go as far as to blame middle-class cocaine users for creating a market for bloodshed – though few of the murders have been related to the drug trade.

Since the turn of the year, two murders have brought home how pervasive the use of knives has become. Early on New Year’s Day, a bouncer was stabbed to death outside a private address in Mayfair – perhaps central London’s most upmarket neighbourhood. The 33-year-old Romanian died when a gang tried to break into a party on Park Lane held by a faux aristocrat known for hosting upmarket orgies. There is disturbing film of the melee leading up to the murder that is so brutal and brazen you can’t help but wonder at the whereabouts of the police.

Prolonged cuts as a result of the Government’s austerity policies have left a much-reduced Metropolitan police force. When the police did turn up, they arrested Imran Mostafa Kamel on separate firearms charges – Kamel is the son of Abu Hamza, the infamous hook-handed cleric serving a life sentence in the US for terrorism. Quite what the self-proclaimed devout Muslim was doing in the vicinity of this overtly hedonistic event has not yet been established.

The other murder that has startled the public took place on a train in London’s leafy stockbroker belt, where 51-year-old Lee Pomeroy was stabbed to death in front of his 14-year-old son following a disagreement with another passenger. Mayfair and a train from the salubrious suburbs are not the places one associates with vicious assaults in plain view of many witnesses.

Coming within days of each other, these crimes have made Londoners wonder who and where is safe. A complacency has set in within the Government, where it was assumed that violent crime would continue falling as part of an inexorable historical process. Transfixed as it is by all things Brexit, the Government seems unable to respond to a deepening crisis in law enforcement.

As big cities go, London is still a pretty civilised environment. But it doesn’t take much to reach a tipping point at which perception begins to determine reality. The longer the paralysis over Brexit continues, the more that other pressing issues are left unattended. In the case of London’s crime, the inaction has lethal consequences.

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.