The extraordinary Tory u-turn on prisons is a welcome shocker
Vindication has its virtues for the vindicated. Modesty is not always the best policy.
Ken Clarke, Norman Tebbit, David Davis, Thatcherites everywhere: I told you so.
I told you building more prisons was “not so much provid[ing] the wrong answers as the right answers to the wrong question”.
I told you “The present number of prison places is sufficient. The trouble is many of them are taken by non-violent offenders who should be doing sentences in their local community”.
In my very first post for Eagle Eye – More prison places are not the answer – I debunked the stupid idea, a mainstay of Tory manifestos from time immemorial, that locking up ever more people was the thing to solve our prisons crisis. This was not only my argument; it was that of Paul Tidball and Lord Ramsbotham, as that post explains.
My esteemed colleague Ben Chu added data to the argument in another post immediately after, in which he argued against Independent columnist Dominic Lawson. He asked: If prison works, why hasn’t it yielded better results?
So I have very mixed feelings about the Tories latest u-turn.
Ken Clarke is currently giving a speech arguing on the lines of my above post. He was on media outlets this morning bemoaning the “tough rhetoric” of previous times – a rhetoric, it must be said, in which New Labour shamefully colluded. He is announcing a drastic overhaul of Britain’s prison system, changing the approach to sentencing and re-emphasising rehabilitation as well as punishment. Good.
Four points can be made immediately.
First, it is very welcome that Clarke has seen sense. He has long been the most impressive Tory in Britain, a reasoned antidote to the loony wing of his party. He is right on this matter.
Second, this indicates the weight he carries in the coalition, which is substantial. David Cameron and George Osborne will know this sits ill with many of their colleagues, and all of the Cornerstone bunch.
Third, this policy is far more in line with the Lib Dem position on prisons before the election than the Tory position. Nick Clegg said repeatedly (including in the first debate) that prisons were “colleges of crime” in need of urgent reform. To that extent, it is a small victory for the Lib Dems, though that it is likely to go largely unreported.
Fourth, Clarke is selling this to his Tory comrades as a change of heart born of economic necessity. That is clever micro-politics. But it is slightly deceitful. The urgency of prison reform long pre-dated the recession, though it’s true that our financial position has accelerated the need for remedial action.
Those table-thumping Tories and Labourites – whether politicians, party supporters, or in the media – who have demanded tougher sentences for several decades should have the decency either to re-state their position (anti-Clarke) or justify their change of mind, which has left them suddenly pro-Clarke.
If they do not do so, we have reason to think them cowardly.
And if they do, and if they claim they support Clarke only because of the financial mess Labour has left us in, we’ll have sufficient licence not to take them seriously ever again.
(Photo: Getty Images)
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