Honest Villainy


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CRIME | Con artists pontificate

Crime pays? The increase in women's crime rates is six or seven times greater than men's.
Honest villainy
Can criminals justify what they do? Many top criminals are thriving on
their illegal activities, seeing their success as the just reward of the entrepreneurial
individualism that the New Right encourages. Laurie Taylor talks to some
of the underworld’s philosophers and puts their case.

DESPITE the scenes of open warfare in the middle of Britain’s major cities, despite the expanding army of unemployed and the persistent erosion of the country’s economic base, there is no sign at all that Mrs Thatcher and her Government have lost one ounce of support among their most vociferous admirers - the large collection of professional criminals (hoisters, con-men, burglars, robbers, and gangsters) who regularly meet for a game of kalooki down at the Landsdowne Sporting Club in London’s West End.

For a start, no-one down at the Landsdowne regards unemployment as anything other than a voluntary state which could quite easily be overcome by an effort of will. Neither will they believe for a moment that it could possibly lie behind any of our major social problems.

Geoff, for example, never had a moment’s doubt about what went wrong at Handsworth or Brixton or Tottenham. A week after the latest inner-city riot, he settled down over a fat rump steak in Chez Gerard’s (‘à point’, he said to the waiter in a casual voice) and told me that the trouble had been all about drugs. In Handsworth it seemed the Asians had been upsetting the blacks by introducing heroin to the area and thus interfering with their sizeable market for marihuana, whereas in Tottenham there had been trouble when a few Brixton dealers had moved in on the local scene.

His argument was that in areas where legitimate opportunities for personal advancement were negligible, then it was no surprise that there was some pretty heavy conflict over any illegitimate ones that were going. (Geoff, like many other professional criminals who’ve spent some years in prison is well up on the latest criminological theories). ‘That’s how it was, Laurie. But you’ll never get the truth of it because the coppers who’re supposed to be looking into it have been taking money from the highest bidder. They’re all in it together’.

It is, of course, a theory of criminal involvement which - if you exclude the reference to the part played by the police - is very close to the heart of other conspiracy theorists such as Chief Constables and spokespeople for the Government. Somewhere, behind every social disorder, lies not such large structural features as class antagonism or multiple deprivation, or institutionalised racial prejudice - but a sinister and shadowy group of self-seeking villains.

What prompts this generalised cynicism in Geoff and others is a solid positive belief that everyone would like to be on the make, that everyone is naturally, instinctively entrepreneurial, and that it is only long years of socialist regulation and control which have inhibited the free expression of such urges. The only ones who don’t want to participate in the acquisitive system are those Geoff would characterise as ‘wallies’, and those that high-ranking politicians refer to as moaning minnies’ or ‘scroungers’.

This all means that it’s highly unfortunate, but hardly the end of civilisation as we know it, when entrepreneurial initiatives produce a variety of small businesses more concerned with promoting the advantages of hard drugs than the benefits of the new technology. At first sight, rioters can look a little frightening and irrational, but once you know that they’re simply common criminals then you can lock them up just as you do other crooks and everyone can get on with their usual business. One knows how to deal with people like that.

Professional criminals fully subscribe to the idea that opportunities for self-advancement lie all around. They may not exactly choose to get on their bike to find them (more likely they’ll hop into somebody else’s car) and neither will they be all that happy to accept lower returns for their efforts on the grounds that some sacrifices have to be made if Britain is to become fully competitive once again. But they are eternally optimistic, convinced that they can find a narrow space in which to exercise their talents, and that Britain is a fine place to live.

Actually few people are better qualified for small business grants than Geoff and some of his friends. Although so far he’s kept well away from heroin, in the last couple of years he’s developed a couple of completely new initiatives. For a start there was the supply of aquaria to the foyers of leading bank and business houses. The only slight technical problem here – I suppose you could call it a design fault – was that the aquaria were incapable of containing the tropical fish mentioned in the brochures, and therefore had to be stocked entirely with what Geoff referred to as ‘little black and white buggers’. ‘Don’t be so ignorant’, he’d say when irate businessmen rang up to complain about the contents of their foyer showpiece, ‘what you’ve got there are very young tropical fish. They develop all their colours as they get older’.

Then, only a few months ago – and again without the help of an enterprise grant – he was busy importing fizzy white wine from Sicily which was then carefully re-labelled as ‘Dom Perignon’ champagne. This sold extremely well as £10 ($14) per bottle compared to the average price of £22 for the real thing. As Geoff explained, ‘It wasn’t too bad at all. I’ve had it myself when there’s been nothing else in the house’. There was even a patriotic aspect to the whole deal. For while wine was undoubtedly Sicilian, the reproduction labels, right down to the trick-ageing process, were one hundred per cent British. As Geoff said, ‘You just couldn’t get them to do anything like that over there.’

In all such cases Geoff regarded himself as the perfect example of Thatcherite economics. He found a demand and met it. In the first place there were the executives who kept glancing at their foyer every morning and thinking how nie it would be to give it that extra touch of class; and then there were the hundreds of punters who’d wondered all their lives what a bottle of Dom Perignon tasted like and were now able to have the most satisfying sense that they knew. ‘You look for what shouldn’t cost what it does and get someone to make it’, says Geoff with an impelling rationality, glancing towards his wrist. I get his meaning. The night before he’d flashed his Cartier Tank watch at me. Market price £2,500/ ‘I’ve got a drawerful at home’ he said. ‘Trouble is so has everyone else. Have to wait for the market to sort itself out’.

Geoff and his criminal friends Lennie Dave and Martin also fully agree with the Chief Constables and Mrs Thatcher when it comes to the necessity of law-and-order being upheld, the need to stamp out all forms of delinquency, hooliganism and street disorder. If you’re organising a nice neat bank robbery that then last thing you want is some lone amateur (or ‘cowboy’ as Geoff would call him) rushing in and firing guns all over the place. Nothing is more likely to make the namk pay attention to its security arrangements. Nor – if you’re planning a series of burglaries – do you want gangs of unemployed young thieves (‘gas-meter bandits’) going around kicking in people’s front doors and making off with their videos. For although professional criminals are big on personal initiative, what they really mean by that is the opportunity for established criminals to make larger and larger profits at the expense of the public. It’s finely modified version of the free market economy which once again is well in tune with the view of the world taken by the major financial and industrial institutions of the country.

You couldn’t say that Geoff and his friends were jealous. Quite the contrary. They’re only too pleased with a monetarist philosophy which makes it fully legitimate for some members of society to get very rich at the expense of others. For professional criminals – con-men, burglars, robbers, hoisters – are principally parasites upon the very rich. When their fortunes rise, so do those of the top criminals. Lennie explained it all to me one evening in the fashionable restaurant, L’Escargot, in language which had the trendy crowd of diners backing away to the far corners of the room. Yes, he loved the rich and particularly those who made it in the city, because he knew that they all has to cheat a bit on their way up. And even though you couldn’t perhaps emulate their success you could always squeeze yourself in on their act.

I’ve watched the way they work, see. But there’s ways into them. There’s a chink there. You gotta watch for the chink, and when you get the chink in the armour, you know you’ve got them. You see millionaires are looking for perks. They’re all at it. They’re all at the cheating game. No matter where they are the rich are always cheating at. And once you know what they’re cheating at, you’ve got ‘em. Because you can move in’.

I asked Geoff how people like himself and Lennie could admire the rich for having made out so well and at the same time spend half their lives going round trying to think up ways to rob and cheat them. ‘Ah well’, he said, looking round to see if the cheeseboard was on its way, ‘That’s the logic of the situation, isn’t it?’.

Laurie Taylor is a professor of Sociology at the University of York, a broadcaster and the author of several books, including a recent study of professional criminals called In the Underworld.

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