Guns of Brixton


In the song ‘Guns of Brixton‘ by The Clash, Paul Simonon writes:

When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun

When the law break in
How you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement
Or waiting in death row

Firstly, possessing a gun in Britain is illegal so why is Paul Simonon supporting men with guns?

Secondly, the British police don’t carry firearms. Only in very recent times have certain squads been allowed to carry guns so as to combat criminal groups with weapons of their own. Therefore, at the time Paul Simonon wrote this song, the chance of you being ‘shot down on the pavement’ by a policeman in Brixton was about as likely as being hit by a stray Cruise Missile.

Thirdly, the Death Penalty was abolished in Britain 50 years ago so how could you be ‘waiting in death row’, unless you had been carelessly transferred by Group 4 to America.

Simonon’s song is juvenile: all political pose and social concern without any seriousness. He was young when he wrote the song and everyone writes stupid stuff when they are young so I’m tempted to forgive him. Even so, it would be nice to hear that now, in middle age, Simonon has seen the error of his ways and revised his former opinions. If he were to admit as much in public, that would be great. Yet something tells me this isn’t going to happen.

In ‘Guns of Brixton’ Simonon appears to be saying that the problem is not the black, gun-carrying drug gangs of Brixton but the police. Maybe he subscribes to the popular progressive liberal idea that the only reasons some black people turn to crime is oppression and racism. Why there is such a high crime rate in most all-black countries must be a real puzzle to such people. Perhaps it never crosses their minds that a black person in Brixton, or anyone else, might find crime a more attractive lifestyle than actually working for a living. Yet for some people there must always be some social wrong that forces young black men into a life of crime, something for which they themselves are not to blame.

Both liberals and conservatives agree that criminals should be locked up somewhere and kept in a place where they can’t hurt others. The main difference in outlook is that liberals look at criminals with sympathy and search for the social and psychological ‘root causes’ of their crimes, while conservatives are less interested in explanations that sound remarkably like Just-So stories. They want to see criminals put away and punished, not only to keep the public safe but also to deter others from following their example. For conservatives, modern prisons don’t really represent ‘punishment’. In some cases they provide better accommodation than the criminal is used to on the outside. Conservatives dislike all the talk of ‘root causes’ because they seem to strip the criminal of all responsibility and make it sound as though it were the criminal, rather than the person who was killed, robbed, raped or burgled, who is the real victim.

I tend more to the conservative than the liberal view. Psychological and social explanations of crime have a habit of turning from explanations into excuses. I suspect that both liberals and conservatives believe that our genes and our environment turn us into the people we eventually become, and both of these factors are beyond our control. However, liberals feel that this is reason enough to treat criminals like victims, something that surely only encourages bad behaviour. Conservatives tend to think that even if we are all victims of circumstance, the threat of punishment must be part of that circumstance.

So whether we are ultimately to blame for our crimes is really a red herring and of little importance. What is important is that we try to reduce crime, and if punishment deters future crime, then go ahead and punish.

To return to ‘Guns of Brixton’, many people on the Left believe that it wasn’t enough to give Jamaicans a chance to better their lot by coming to Britain. Providing free schooling, free health care and council housing was just a start. These lefties believe Britain should also have ensured that the new arrivals actually took their opportunity, just as Kenyan and Ugandan Asians took theirs in the 1960s and 1970s. Britain should not only have brought the horse to water but made it drink, too.

Yet many Jamaicans chose not to take theat opportunity and for this, people like Paul Simonon blame not Jamaicans themselves but various British governments, the British police force and the white British middle-class. We seem to be living in a world that has, morally speaking, been turned upside down.


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