Despite a spate of violent deaths across Britain over the New Year period, including ones in Plymouth, Boston, Blackpool and Cambridgeshire, 2015 could turn out to be the most peaceful year in recorded human history.
New statistics reveal that the murder rate for the UK as a whole has plummeted from a high of almost 1,000 in 2001 to just 537 in the year to March 2014. Over the same period in London the fall has been even more dramatic: from almost 200 homicides – including murder, manslaughter and other crimes – to just 95.
Despite a popular perception that Britain is going to hell in a handcart, data suggests you were up to 100 times more likely to meet a violent end in the Middle Ages than you are today.
Professor Steven Pinker – whose acclaimed bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature claims the murder rate in Mediaeval Oxford was around 110 per 100,000, making it as dangerous as present day Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – put forward five historical forces for the worldwide fall in violence. These include the rise of the nation state and increasing respect for the rights of women.
The decline in violence in Britain has been mirrored in societies across the world, most notably in the US, where the murder rate has fallen dramatically in the last 30 years. In New York the number of murders fell from 2,245 in 1991 to 333 in 2013.
Pinker himself admits that "The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue."
Despite these provisos, not everyone agrees with Pinker's analysis, or his statistics. Some critics claim Pinker focuses too much on Western Europe, ignoring conflicts around the world, and others dispute the veracity of the Oxford murder rates.
Yet no one can really explain why violent crime – in the West, at least – is falling so dramatically. Is it because of the banning of lead in petrol, the fact we lock up more prisoners, or are we simply becoming nicer as a race? Nobody really knows. However, one thing seems certain: whatever the reality, politicians, the media and "experts" will continue to read the news in ways that reflect their own particular view.