We'll miss Ken Clarke as justice secretary - he's saved money and lives

Ken Clarke was making good on the promise of a "rehabilitation revolution".

There are two fewer people in prison than a year ago. That might not sound particularly significant, but just a few years ago even maintaining a lid on the prison population would have been unthinkable. Year on year the figures would jump ever higher, so that the number of men, women and children in prison in England and Wales doubled since the mid-1990s. Now the trend of expansion is being slowed and may yet be halted, even reversed. Particular strides have been made in cutting the number of children in prison, very few of whom should be there at all.

Not all of this can be put down to Ken Clarke. He comes in a long tradition of Conservatives who believe in a compassionate, small-government and evidence-based approach to cutting crime. It was the marriage of these attitudes with the progressive criminal justice policies of the Liberal Democrats that made the justice section of the Coalition Agreement so clear. They promised a "rehabilitation revolution" involving "overhauling the system of rehabilitation to reduce reoffending and provide greater support and protection for the victims of crime."

But it was Ken Clarke who began making good on these promises. By encouraging greater use of rehabilitative community sentences and introducing a plan to get prisoners to do an honest day’s work rather than lie in bed all day, he has saved money and saved lives.

Some progressives are concerned around the appointment of Chris Grayling, who certainly represents a change in ideological background. However, any employment minister should know that you can’t tackle worklessness without a profound understanding of its underlying causes. The same goes for crime. Indeed, in 2009, the new Justice Secretary said “We are much too inclined to put prisoners into a cell for eighteen hours or more a day, and to do much too little to deal with root problems in their lives – like addiction, lack of education, or mental health problems – or a destructive combination of all three.”

I hope he remains true to this ambition. He must, above all, resist the calls of those who back a return to policy based more around a Daily Mail online survey than academic evidence and compassion. In a society where more people are imprisoned than anywhere else in Western Europe, every prison place costs in excess of £40,000 each year and the vast majority of released prisoners reoffend in their first year, it’s clear that our prisons are wasting lives and taxpayers’ money.

At the Howard League for Penal Reform, we will work with Mr Grayling wherever possible to build a society with less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Find her Twitter as @FrancesCrook, and the Howard League for Penal Reform as @thehowardleague

Ken Clarke, moved from the Ministry of Justice, now becomes minister without portfolio. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser