Conservative Diary

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Cutting prison numbers is like cutting front line policing. It's time for Ken Clarke to go back to the drawing board.

By Paul Goodman
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I have been away on holiday for a week, and can report no looting near Chale, Isle of Wight.  Perhaps the sea air has gone to my head, but there are reasons for hope on returning home.

  • The riots told us much that we need to know.  They were like a symptom of sickness.  Yes, only a few thousand people robbed and pillaged.  Yes, most of the country was unaffected.  And, yes, the illness was, as it were, confined and local - not widespread, not national.  But those who downplay the significance of what happened are simply wrong.  The fact is that the authorities lost control of the streets in some of our biggest cities: worse still, they were seen to lose it.  We caught a glimpse of how economic and social decline spiral downwards together.  Of how the illness could spread in Britain.  Of how Europe is set to fall as Asia rises.  Of a future in which public officials seek, as they did in the 1970s, merely to "manage decline".  Being reminded of all this is for the good.  If you're sick, it's best to know it.  After all, the sooner illness is diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated.
  • The state has asserted its authority.  There are different views on the right, as well as on the left, about how big the state should be and when it should act.  But on one point tories and libertarians agree: when the state does act, it must do so with authority.  And the good news is that it did so this week - very late, certainly, but better late than never.  Ministers returned from holiday, Parliament was recalled, meetings were held, decisions reached, announcements made - and the rioting stopped.  That this had far more to do with a surge in police numbers than any broadcast from Downing Street is beside the point - which is that the authorities were eventually perceived to have more muscle than the looters.  Those who claim that order was always going to be restored swiftly should ask themselves: did it really look that way last Monday afternoon?

  • Cameron rose to the moment.  The Prime Minister manages political eruptions like a student managing an essay crisis.  Last-minute changes of plan are made.  Towels are wrapped round heads.  Pots of coffee are consumed.  There is quite a lot of shouting.  Because the student is as stylish as he can be slapdash - and is a master of presentation - the essay seldom fails to impress the examiners.  Cameron rose to the occasion this week as he did in his noteless conference speech of 2007.  Bravely and rightly, he dared to deploy the language of morality that a more cautious politician would have shied away from.  He thus did what a Prime Minister must do from time to time: articulate the feelings of the nation.  That some of his proposals look less good up close - as we will see - than from a distance was, for the moment, irrelevant.
  • Parts of the left have learnt lessons from the 1980s...  The Labour Party made the fatal error of placing itself on the side of rioters during the Thatcher era.  Miliband is too cute to make the same mistake, and Labour MPs curbed their inclination to blame the "Tory cuts" that their own party's plans would almost have matched this year.  But parts of the Labour Party are moving on from the 1980s.  They are starting to face up to the damage wreaked on their own people's lives by the liberal elite's long assault on marriage.  David Lammy's take on fatherlessness this week was as eloquent as it was informed.  Tom Harris has been fighting a good fight for fatherhood on Twitter.  In Parliament, Heidi Alexander dug away at the roots of the problem.  They get the point: family breakdown means lost jobs.  This may be bad news for the Conservatives but it's good news for the country. 
  • ...As have parts of the right.  Previous Tory Governments tried to get young people off the conveyor belt to crime: remember the work of Michael Heseltine in Liverpool.  But there was no Centre for Social Justice until the last decade, no consensus on the right that there is such a thing as society.  The rioters in the forefront of a furious public's gaze have been those in work - the millionaire's daughter, the teaching assistant, and so on.  But most of those lurking in the background will turn out to be young, male, members of gangs, black (in London) and unemployed (everywhere).  Those who come off the conveyor belt must be punished.  And others must be stopped from getting on it in the first place. The right has grasped a message, too: lost jobs mean family breakdown.  And public disorder - as Matthew Sinclair argued cogently on this site.
  • Now is the time to review the planned cuts in prison places... Some of Cameron's announcements were questionable.  The police already have wide powers to remove face masks.  It isn't easy to see why council house dwellers should be the only offenders to merit special punishment, or why Ministers should assume new powers to shut down unencrypted social media.  But whatever the arguments either way, a simple point holds: new measures are no substitute for tough prison sentences.  However, as Philip Davies pointed out recently on this site, the Government is still planning to cut the number of prison places.  As far as voters are concerned, this is the equivalent of cutting front-line police officers.  They won't accept it - rightly - and Cameron should tell Ken Clarke should go back to the budgetary drawing board.
  • ...And to overhaul police leadership.  The Government, of course, is not cutting police numbers.  Unlike the situation on prison places, its argument for reducing police budgets without cutting front line officers isn't impossible to win.  But it is a very hard sell, and one that must be undertaken alongside the introduction of elected police commissioners.  This perhaps explains Theresa May's unwillingness to allow Bill Bratton to apply to run the Met.  She doubtless believes that she must, as the saying has it, "take the police with her" during the hardest time for any Home Secretary in recent years.  However, the riots proved right David Davis's long-standing argument, made recently again on this site, that real and drastic changes in the leadership of Britain's police are needed.  With these must come real localism in policing - which, as I've previously explained, present plans are unlikely to deliver.

A final point.  My leitmotif since the airplane plot of 2006 is that while Islamism is a deadly ideology, Islam itself is a great religion.  Off this site, I'm sometimes challenged about the former view; on it, more usually about the latter one.  To which my response - in the wake of the horror of this week's events, and claims that Muslims are required to seek revenge - can be summed up in two words: Tariq Jahan.


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