Like many in Britain, I know of more than one young person whose life has been cruelly extinguished in violent circumstances. My brother’s childhood friend Sven Badzak – an aspiring lawyer and son of a Tory activist – was murdered in 2021 in a case of mistaken identity on his way home from Waitrose after picking up orange juice for his mum. I remember him as a small child bursting into my bedroom when he came over to play, a cheeky and infectious ball of energy. Today he is the morbid subject of fascination in true crime podcasts. His murder was a surreal mixture of the psychopathic and the absurd. As they were sentenced, his killers lay down in the dock, cackled and booed at the judge as if he were a pantomime villain.
I’ll never forget morning assembly prayers alongside the equally ebullient Lewis Ghessen, either. I used to chuckle as he boomed “Our Father”, half-jokingly half-seriously, louder than anyone. At the age of 22, he would recite the Lord’s Prayer again while on the phone to the police just before being killed on impact by an express train on the tracks at Harrow and Wealdstone station. Before he died, he claimed he had been chased on to the line by phone muggers. Nobody has ever been held to account for his death.
We live in a country where politicians love to talk about “justice” – from human rights lawyer Sir Keir Starmer to Theresa May, the supposed slayer of “burning injustices”. With “liberty” the love language of the Right and “equality” the crusade of the Left, justice is just about the only unifying value left in our country. But like many, I have completely lost faith in British “justice”. Quite the contrary, ours feels more and more like a lawless country where there is no justice at all.
We seem to be suffering a slow-burning collapse in law and order. The year has started with a spate of horrifying stabbings. A 17-year-old boy was knifed to death in broad daylight in Birmingham city centre on Saturday in what may have been a case of “mistaken identity” that chillingly echoes Sven’s murder. The country is in the grips of a machete-attack wave as A&Es warn that children are being left with “war zone” injuries. Knife crime is once again surging, after briefly falling during the pandemic.
Faith in the ability of the police to attend serious crime and emergency situations stands on a precipice. In the space of a week, the country has been left disturbed by two separate cases of officers apparently failing to follow up in time after the alarm was raised about the wellbeing of children who were later found dead in their homes. Burglary, meanwhile, has become a virtually unpunishable career choice for criminals, with someone charged in less than 4 per cent of cases.
This is not to mention the ongoing outrage of lenient sentencing. Every day seems to bring a fresh scandal, whether it’s a serial rapist sentenced to just 12 years, or a paedophile being handed a community service penalty. All while hundreds of decent and innocent sub-postmasters were hounded through the courts, and some imprisoned.
This steady breakdown in order is paralleled by the abject failure to police the borders. After a hiatus over the Christmas break, the small boats have once again started to glide across the channel.
The Tories ignore the country’s simmering crisis of faith in British justice at their peril. The growing sense that the UK is becoming a Wild West country, its ability to live up to the most basic levels of civility and fairness viciously corroded, is the political dog that hasn’t yet barked. But it could well do so soon.
You can see it in the polling: 45 per cent of people have little to no faith in the justice system. You can even glimpse it in popular culture: witness the mania for crime noir, a sub-genre (think Line of Duty) that explores the rotten institutions and criminal underbelly of a lawless country.
In light of this, the Conservatives should think very hard about its “weak justice” agenda as it pushes ahead with plans to release thousands of prisoners serving shorter sentences early in a bid to ease prison overcrowding. The Government only needs one to commit a serious crime upon their release to find themselves plunged into a full-blown scandal.
Where did things go so wrong? The notion that 14 years of Tory cuts have decimated local policing and that the courts are still struggling to clear their Covid backlog is well worn. But there are also deeper issues at play. Indeed, the whole system seems utterly broken.
There are the ossified public-sector bodies, which appear to lack even basic mechanisms for holding public servants to account. Take the Home Office, where nobody seems to take responsibility for failures in jobs as basic as keeping track of the people who have entered Britain illegally. Or the senior child protection executives who, after being removed from one authority amid a scandalous failing, are installed into a cushy job at another council. Or the “bad apple” police officers who are almost impossible to sack, and instead sent on endless retraining courses.
There’s the complete lack of common sense in the system. The tragedy of Bronson Battersby – a toddler known to social services who starved to death in his home over Christmas after his father suffered a fatal heart attack – may well turn out to be a lesson in the perils of social workers sticking with “process” rather than following their gut.
Meanwhile, the notion that judges should have scope to dole out minimum sentences to cold-blooded murderers, rather than condemning them to die behind bars, runs completely counter to justice as most of the public would understand it. So, too, the idea that the country should refrain from policing its borders lest this breach an outdated Cold War-era international refugee law.
Finally, we have become too reluctant to confront uncomfortable facts. Sven’s killers were black males. When are we going to have a frank discussion about the fact that, while they only account for 13 per cent of the capital’s population, black Londoners account for 61 per cent of knife murder perpetrators and 45 per cent of knife murder victims?
One sees the same political correctness in the debate over illegal Channel crossers and negligent parents who allow their vulnerable children to be put in harm’s way. Justice requires a society to have a strong sense of responsibility as well as rights.
Unfortunately, it may take an even more serious crime wave for our politicians to realise all this. In the meantime, we can only brace ourselves, and bolt our doors at night.