Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tories take the hardest road

Someone recently asked me what I thought about Ken Clarke and the general Tory line on prisons and related environs. It made me think.

There has never been a 'traditional' Tory line on prisons. Each Home Secretary (now Justice Secretary) followed a broad ideological view, true, but the influence that had on the prison landings was small. Thus we had Douglas Hurd stating that "prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse", and Michael Howard baldly proclaiming that "Prison works!". The Tory party has been a pretty broad church historically when it comes to matters penological.

This situation held true until Michael Howard. Howard retreated into a simple set of ideological assertions which happened to be both popular and populist. Electorally clever, but intellectually shoddy. He treated crime and punishment as simplistic problems which were amenable to simple solutions. And in doing so, shattered the broad post-War consensus and made prisons a highly politically charged subject.

Jack Straw continued this trend. Listening to his speeches in opposition, I was very worried by his simplistic, authoritarian tone. And, sadly, I was right to be. Labour made a spectacular mess out of prisons policy and thousands of my peers are paying that price.

The Coalition government, though, has avoided trapping itself into an ever harsher spiral of simplistic and populist policies. This may be Ken Clarke's natural inclination (he was a "mostly harmless" Home Secretary for prisoners) but the opportunities of Coalition politics offer him and his allies more room to operate. The LibDems were never going to support mindless and reactionary prison policies. With that backdrop Clarke has an opportunity of movement which, should it end in disaster, can be blamed on the necessities of coalition rather than be a black mark against the Tories. And it makes it harder for the media to pin down a target to attack; should they aim for Clarke, or the LibDems, or the whole Coalition?

This situation allows Ministers to actually think about prison. Penology is a complicated issue that requires complicated solutions. And that is a lot harder than slapping us in a reflexive act of vengeance. So far, Clarke gives the impression that he is at least willing to try to engage with the issues in a meaningful way - rather than throwing chunks of prisoners to the baying mob.


  1. This is a really interesting, topical and thought provoking post.

    The first thing that comes to my mind on the subject is that we should not underestimate the influence campaigns such as yours, the Free Prisoner Ben campaign actually has in shaping politicians thinking and reform of policy.

    During the 1950's ( after wide scale general dissatisfaction and workers going on strike ), the then Tories were the first to start a programme of building council housing and they competed with Labour concerning how many were built.

    Ordinary people and campaigns do make a difference.

    Also, prison can and does happen to Tories, so their interest in penal reform may not be entirely altruistic.

    Their ideology of individualistic freedom ( and pro market economics )can for some make prison reform seem an attractive campaigning and philanthropic issue for the benefit of a minority of prisoners anyway.

    If Ken Clarke's traditional conservatism causes fault lines in the prison service, then good, it will give campaigns and crusades for improvement more room to manoeuver.

    And the time should be seized, people should campaign even harder now until the whole penal system gets shaken up and becomes something more fitting for 21st Century civilization.

  2. Plus did you see Clarke on Question Time talking about retribution?

  3. Thanks for posting this jailhouselawyer, a brilliant article. It's great that Ben's case is being discussed in the media; well done to Ben and Ed for the blog, it's a powerful tool.