Can Britain Save Its Wayward Youth?

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Shaun Curry / AFP / Getty

Floral tributes are left at the scene where British teenager Ben Kinsella was killed in a stabbing in London on June 30

Purpose-built for the poor, the tenement block has never seen good days, but someone once cared enough to decorate its narrow hall with a print of a wide-eyed child. Now a real child, no more than 2 years old, dirty and distressed, holds himself up on the open door. Police officers Nick Weston and Amanda Lovegrove have come to this housing project in Hackney, a London borough northeast of the city center, to investigate reports of a knife attack. They are arresting the toddler's uncle, who admits brandishing a kitchen blade but says he was just protecting the child from his drug-addicted mother. Weston tried to question the mom, still in her teens but with the sunken face of an old woman. "All she can tell us about the child's dad is that he's called John," he says. "What hope do kids like this have?"

Britain is rich, but a sizable minority of its children live in squalor, their prospects occluded by their bad start in life. Social mobility is low compared with other advanced nations — 31% of children in inner London and 22% nationally are growing up in poverty, which will only increase with spiraling fuel and food costs and a stuttering job market. More than 9% of 16-to-18-year-olds are not currently enrolled in any form of education, employment or job training.

It should come as no surprise, then, that youth policy dominates Britain's political agenda as never before. But what has really grabbed the attention of well-heeled parliamentarians is a spate of unrelated murders. What links the crimes is the use of a weapon — usually a knife, sometimes a gun — casually wielded because the victim had looked askance at his killer (most victims are boys) or offered some other insignificant provocation. Last year 27 teenagers were murdered in London, many by other teenagers. This year's toll has already reached 20 and includes Robert Knox, an 18-year-old actor who plays a trainee wizard in the forthcoming Harry Potter movie, and who was reportedly killed defending his brother in a brawl over a stolen mobile phone. On July 1 hundreds of demonstrators marched through Islington, Hackney's neighboring borough, to protest the knifing outside a local pub of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella, a straight-A student whose sister starred in a popular TV soap opera. Nine days later, four Londoners were knifed to death in separate incidents during the same 24-hour period, among them Melvin Bryan, who would have celebrated his 19th birthday two days later.

Despite banner headlines warning of a "Broken Britain," it remains relatively safe. The homicide rate of 1.6 per 100,000 in England and Wales compares favorably with the rate of 5.9 per 100,000 in the U.S. Overall crime figures are down by one-third since the ruling Labour Party was voted into power in 1997, and London has actually seen a reduction in most violent offenses in recent years.

But if the anxiety generated by street violence is disproportionate, public concerns about young Britons are far from unfounded. Simply venture into London's West End late on a Saturday night to witness the national pastime of binge-drinking with its attendant brawls and mishaps. Young British men fighting on the streets is hardly news, but the development that has raised alarm bells is the widespread carrying of weapons. Teachers report increases in the number of pupils bringing knives to school; students in turn claim to carry them for protection against their peers — the same reason they cite for joining the gangs that are proliferating in British cities. Children here are fearful and, according to a controversial 2007 UNICEF report, unhappier than their counterparts in other Western countries.

Once the Labour Party might have blamed such ills on Britain's deep social inequalities, nowhere more clearly drawn than in parts of London such as Hackney and Islington, where slums abut some of the most desirable housing stock in the capital. But such analysis would be uncomfortable for a party that has ruled the country for more than a decade. "Antisocial behavior . . . is first and foremost the responsibility of the parents," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown ahead of the launch of the Youth Crime Action Plan that was published on July 15. The plan envisages a tougher enforcement of laws and heavier punishments for young offenders, as well as intensive intervention in 110,000 at-risk households identified by agencies such as the police, social services and education authorities. A pilot scheme involving 90 such families achieved reductions in antisocial behaviors.

The resurgent Conservative Party is also churning out proposals to tackle youth crime. Its smooth young leader, David Cameron, has more than once referenced New York's success in reducing violent crime by stamping out low-level disorder. But as police officers Weston and Lovegrove respond to another emergency call that takes them to another highrise in Hackney, where another toddler sits on a filthy floor amid dog dirt and discarded needles, it's clear that a growing number of young Britons may be irretrievably damaged before any policy changes percolate through.