The justice secretary's message on penal reform was too radical and the PM lost his nerve. So we will keep wasting money.
So what caused the car crash? It was supposed to be the first real chance for penal reform in Britain for a quarter century. For years terrified Labour home secretaries quivered before the forces of darkness. They introduced 50 criminal justice measures and imprisoned more people than anywhere in Europe. They locked up their minds and threw away the key. Last year along came Ken Clarke, apparently without a fear or an electoral care in the world. The clouds rolled back and sanity came over the horizon. Yet on Tuesday a person looking remarkably like the prime minister took the justice secretary into a dark corner of Downing Street and mugged him. Everything went black.
Clarke's proposals in a green paper last year were designed to put some subtlety into Britain's primitive justice system. Prison sentences should treat the circumstance of cases rather than parliamentary megaphones and mandatory messages. Early admission of guilt would attract up to a 50% reduction in sentence and save millions in court time and much witness anguish. There should be more plea bargaining, less incarceration of foreigners and greater emphasis on rehabilitation.
Most of this has been overturned by a David Cameron whose hand on the wheel of policy has been unsteady of late. Up to 60% of Clarke's green paper has been lost. His incentives for guilty pleas are dropped, along with his bid to increase community sentencing and reduce the prison population.
To rub home this exemplary drubbing of liberalism Cameron insisted on a return to "stupid justice", with two-strikes mandatory sentencing, automatic jail for knife crimes and a special "bash the burglar" law. At present there are 20,000 knife crimes a year, of which just 20% lead to prison. This, with a shorter remission for sex and violence crimes, should push the prison population towards the 100,000 point. This is paraded as "punishment with a purpose". It is a desperate play to the gallery.
On Wednesday Cameron got his desired reward. "Right at last," thundered the Daily Mail, hailing the prime minister's "new sense of direction". The Sun cried, "Cameron shows welcome steel," and claimed credit for stopping the "soft justice secretary", otherwise "Crackers Ken, the paedophile's pal". The Daily Telegraph welcomed "Humiliation for Clarke," as Cameron was "forced to get a grip on the government's agenda." Thus was the fatted calf prepared for the repentant hoodie-hugger.
Cameron must have felt a twinge of distaste for this company. He is not by nature an illiberal man. More to the point, he and his coalition partners approved every one of Clarke's proposals in last year's green paper. For the first time in decades a serious attempt was being made to assess the purpose and value of Britain's obsession with imprisonment. It was briefly the coalition's finest hour.
More than that, Clarke had rolled his political pitch. The justice department was under pressure to deliver £2bn of cuts, to which an estimated fall of 6,450 in the UK's 85,000 prison population would make a big contribution. Some 3,000 of these would come from the guilty-plea discount. The Treasury was eagerly on board. Clarke then relied on Lib Dems to back him in cabinet and parliament. They did so, forming a strong enough alliance to face down the Tories' right wing and the tabloids.
Downing Street simply lost its nerve. A dark nexus of focus groups and spin doctors told Cameron he was mad to seem soft on crime, and screamed for a U-turn. The Lib Dems, proud of wrecking government policy on student fees and NHS reform, decided not to honour their pledge to Clarke on so exposed a topic as crime and punishment. The Lib Dems are opportunists before they are liberals.
Then the Labour spokesman, Sadiq Khan, whose party's record on penal reform is dire, opted to join the Tory right. He castigated Clarke as "failing on every count" of combating crime. His leader, Ed Miliband, demanded Clarke's dismissal for his remarks on rape. Then on Wednesday Miliband went further, and attacked Cameron's attempt to bring civil liberty to bear on Labour's police DNA data base. This was inexcusable. There cannot be a liberal bone in Miliband's body.
To cap it all, Cameron proved suddenly sensitive to the tabloid press, for whom hysteria on crime ranks with celebrity infidelity and banker-bashing as a stock in trade. For decades all attempts to reform the courts, jury trials, sentencing, the drug laws, rehabilitation or the treatment of women has faced a vertical cliff-face of tabloid reaction. To the Sun, the Daily Mail and Daily Express in particular, all judges and justice ministers are wimps whose dangerous tendency to liberalism can be curbed only by media vigilance, in potent alliance with the police and prison unions and victims' rights groups. Their policy is simple: bang 'em up forever.
The tabloids are assumed by most at Westminster to hold some sacred proxy for public opinion. This is curious. Newspapers are tiny oligarchies, cabals, private corporations. Their views reflect only the prejudices of editors, leader-writers and columnists. They never canvass readers' opinions. Years of political research have failed to discern any impact by them on public opinion (irksome as it is for a columnist to admit).
Most people are naturally paranoid about crime, especially when fed on a daily diet of horror. Three-quarters of the nation thinks crime is rising, when it is falling. People are twice as "concerned" about crime nationally as about crime in their area, suggesting the media plays a major part in creating misconception. But then most people also think taxes are too high, immigration too easy and spending on their chosen public service too low. Sensible politicians set such views in context, but on crime they capitulate.
Money spent fighting crime is like any aspect of security. It is never enough and most is wasted, but no one knows how much is wasted or where. The only way to progress is to measure every policy against the test of improvement. Clarke's message was radical – that too much money goes on imprisoning too many non-violent criminals and too little attention is paid to cutting reoffending. This is not a matter of "sending messages". Any visitor to British prisons with an ounce of humanity knows that they should have no place in a civilised society. If they were a deterrent there would be no repeat offending. They just ruin lives and propagate criminality.
As long as politicians pander to media-fed paranoia rather than calmly publicise facts, and as long as they delegate policy to the worst recesses of the press, money will be wasted. Families will be destroyed, drugs will proliferate and penal policy atrophy. Cameron can shout "consultation is good," but the crushing of Clarke was not consultation, it was panic. There is only one lesson to be drawn from this sad saga. Those who live by the tabloids, die by them.