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Fools and horses

By Dick Hobbs

The news that sections of the UK public may have been munching on horse, rather than beef, has prompted renditions of an all too familiar refrain from British politicians and their cohorts in the media. “Mafia gangs” and “mobsters” have apparently combined in an “international conspiracy” to doctor the rump of the British menu in the form of cheap frozen meals. However, the assertion that foreigners are at the heart of this problem has a lineage with origins extending far beyond the relatively recent construction of organised crime in the UK.

In the early 20th century, Jewish immigration from the Pale of Settlement was portrayed as a criminal problem connected to the vice trade, in particular “white slavery” with all of its connotations of international trade and global conspiracy. Despite anything approaching viable evidence, the British political class reacted with the Aliens Act of 1905, which was targeted specifically at Jews. They introduced immigration controls and registration for aliens, defining some groups of migrants as ‘undesirable’, and made entry to the UK discretionary rather than automatic.

Alien transgression continued to represent a particularly dangerous threat to British society and one that required extraordinary legislative measures. During the First World War, the threat of foreigners peddling drugs to London-based Allied servicemen caused a moral panic to spread, such that in 1914 the House of Commons passed the Defence of the Realm Act. This was a catch-all ‘ways and means’ law, utilized to impose a wide range of authoritarian measures, including making the possession of both opium and cocaine illegal in the wake of growing fears concerning off-duty soldiers being plied with drugs by foreigners. The Act drove the trade underground, inducing a form of amnesia upon the long relationship that Britain had with opium in particular — a relationship that had included a willingness to fight two wars in order to enforce opium trafficking. Historically, the louche dilettantism of imperially formed self-indulgence ensured that, as long as the working classes refrained, opium smoking had been an acceptable vice, particularly amongst ex-colonialists and London’s literary elite. However, in the wake of jingoistic sentiment instigated by the First World War, opium now became associated with illegal nightlife, and in particular as a substance that assisted devious Orientals in the seduction and degradation of white women. Consequently, opium prohibition was accompanied by a clamp down on the Chinese community as it became an ideal platform for the re-establishment of pre-war patriarchal values. The terrors that had been generated by images of Jewish sexuality were now being replayed against a backdrop of drugs and white slavery, involving international traffic controlled by yet another alien criminal conspiracy, and the moral panic regarding the Chinese provided yet another prototype for the idea of international organised criminal conspiracies.

Post-World War II, concerns about prostitution in London once again focused upon foreigners – this time the Maltese. In 1953 a Sunday tabloid journalist wrote a six-week exposé of “the most complicated and certainly the most powerfully organized gang of vice this nation has ever known” who “controlled vice in London for a period of over ten years” and ran a “vice empire.” Although conveniently labelled as Maltese, the five Messina brothers were of mixed Egyptian, Sicilian, and Maltese decent, and had operated brothels in Sicily, Malta, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain. However, the tabloid journalist was the close friend and biographer of Billy Hill, one of the Messinas’ many rivals in post war Soho, and historian Stephan Slater has recently questioned the notion of London’s vice trade being dominated by a foreign monopoly, pointing out that these “emperors of a vice empire in the heart of London” had, at the peak of their careers, only 20 women working for them. Rather than operating a pervasive, transgressive network, the Messinas were one of many groups controlling prostitutes, and were in fact paying protection money to a wide range of white indigenous predators, including Billy Hill and members of the Metropolitan Police. However, the Messinas’ case confirmed in the British imagination the direct association between vice and foreigners, contributing considerably to the implementation of the 1960 Street Offences Act, which took prostitution off of the streets and into premises owned predominantly by white British “businessmen”.

Back to another kind of meat market, and early in 2013 organised criminals from Eastern Europe were identified as the culprits for making British dinner time a covert equestrian event. The story, occasionally accompanied by pictures of herds of wild Romanian horses, appeared cheek by quivering jowl alongside concerns that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens constituted a gathering wave of criminality, one that was about to break upon these beleaguered shores when they acquire free movement across the EU in 2014. As we can see above, we have been here before, and when the alleged sources of some of the horsemeat was later identified as emanating no further east than West Wales and West Yorkshire, the slaughterhouse owners came across less like Tony Soprano and more like extras from Emmerdale.

Organised crime made its debut in UK policy circles in the 1980s with the end of the cold war, alongside increasing pressure from the USA and the United Nations to engage in the War on Drugs. The problem of organised crime in the UK was constructed during the 1990s and the early 21st century, within institutions designed specifically to police a convenient, demonic catch-all of foreign instigated transgression that is central to both media and law enforcement narratives of unlicensed capitalism. However, this focus upon the alleged international character of the supply side misses the point. The illegal trades that serve market society depends upon the unremarkable quest for a bargain by competent consumers: those seeking an ounce of this, a gram of that, 200 ‘Albanian Marlboro’, and a DVD of a Hollywood blockbuster courtesy of a extremely polite Chinese youth who delivers the goods at 9 p.m. every Friday. But the entitlements of affluence that are central to Western society also value cheap commercial sex, somebody to pick up the kids from school and do a little light dusting, or for the increasingly impoverished population of early 21st century Britain, a cheap frozen lasagne.

Beef, horsemeat, human flesh or temporary oblivion all have a price, but blaming strangers with difficult to pronounce names for their provision merely obscures the banality of our desires and the timidity of our resolve to address the racism that rests at the heart of the UK’s interpretation of organised crime.

Dick Hobbs is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Criminology Centre at the University of Essex, and Professor of Sociology at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of Lush Life: Constructing Organized Crime in the UK. He previously held Chairs at the University of Durham and the London School of Economics. An ethnographer by trade, he is sceptical of the rise of criminology and has published widely on the sociologies of deviance, of East London, organized and professional crime, the night-time economy and the 2012 Olympics.

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