Crime and consensus : elite perceptions of crime in Sheffield, 1919-1929
This is a study of prevailing perceptions of crime during the 1920s. By focussing on the enunciations of the Sheffield elite some of the key factors shaping dominant attitudes to crime throughout Britain during this period are identified. Emphasis is placed on the necessity of a historically specific approach. A detailed analysis of contemporary newspaper coverage and other literary sources reveals such perceptions to be shaped by the complex interplay of broad social currents and more immediate concerns. It is argued that in the decade following the Great War crime formed a relatively minor topic of debate. There also prevailed a low-key response to offending and a markedly progressive view about crime. This optimistic conception of crime owed much to the apparent rehabilitative capacity of the offender and the perceived successes in reducing illegality through positive measures of state welfare. Yet, emphasis upon the specificities of the period reveals the primacy of contemporary political urgencies in shaping attitudes to crime. Though crime was an infrequent focus of discussion the discourse of progressive criminal reform offered one of the few areas of consensus in a society characterised by conflict. Elite enunciations about crime were intimately related to their mission of forging social consensus. Key individuals in the city repeatedly played down the extent of crime and praised the law-abiding character of ordinary people. Here is rejected the conviction that crime panics are an inevitable concomitant of economic and social crisis. Despite the profound anxiety that gripped the middle classes during this turbulent period, there prevailed amongst the Sheffield elite a markedly relaxed view of crime and criminals. Criminal and penal policy offered an exemplary model for broader welfare intervention and constructive political engagement between contending classes.