PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2007, 12:00am

Margaret Thatcher famously remarked there was no such thing as society in Britain. Now those on the political left who were cynical about her laissez-faire capitalistic views in which you do not love your neighbour, you exploit him, are debating whether she was right.

It follows news that three teenagers have been shot dead within 11 days in south London in what appear to be drug-related killings. Poignantly, it also follows publication of a United Nations report that Britain ranks bottom in the top 20 advanced nations when it comes to the emotional and financial welfare of children. British children are more likely to drink alcohol, take drugs, have under-age sex and not sit down to dinner with their parents than any other of the nations polled.

It's worth noting in these days of electronic revolution how much modern invention has played a part in the latest tragedy. Billy Cox, aged just 15, was shot dead at about 3.30pm in his home in Peckham by someone assumed to be a rival drug dealer. Friends say he was involved in a mobile phone texting argument with his assassin. Within hours of his death, a website was set up in his memory and, the last time I looked, it had 117 pages of tributes. Never before have I seen such a response to a story on the newspaper websites. In some cases the word-count of the responses exceeded the word-count of the printed product.

Billy's death, and the context in which it came, touched a raw nerve in society. There is a palpable sense of fear on the streets of London. At one time it was stone-throwing, then it became knives. Now the ultimate enforcer is increasingly in use.

Teenagers, mostly from the black community, have easy access to guns and a willingness to use them. Both of their parents tend to work to meet the crippling cost of living (it's reported this week that house prices are rising at a rate of GBP57 (HK$870) an hour - that's a pound a minute or GBP1,370 a day). Their youngsters roam wild in gangs, which form a substitute for the family unit, and they deal in drugs, the quickest way to make a buck from both the disillusioned and the bonus-happy but work-drained city workers.

Just a few score yards from the estate in which Billy lived and died, yuppies quaff champagne at GBP100 a bottle in wine bars that serve lobster tagliatelle drizzled in truffle oil before repairing to their GBP600,000 homes.

'The contrast in lifestyles is huge,' says south London social worker Sue Palmer. 'The ancient African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child no longer applies. Society is too fragmented. Although I didn't endorse her policies, Mrs Thatcher was correct in her analysis.'

Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged to crack down 'very hard' on teenage gun gangs. He says he wants the minimum age for a mandatory five-year jail term for carrying guns to be cut from 21 to 17. He also vowed to criminalise gang membership and give police the power to mount US-style surveillance on the homes of gun suspects. And he called a crisis summit of ministers, police and community chiefs this week to tackle the issue of gun gangs.

At the same time, ministers are privately briefing that the number of fatal shootings is nowhere near the levels found in New York, Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg.

But it remains a fact that in 2003 the number of black-on-black murders or shootings of people aged under 20 was 16 per cent. So far this year it is 32 per cent.