Ken Clarke is right to challenge “prison works”

As Justice Secretary bravely intervenes, all Labour can do is parrot Michael Howard and cry: “Prison

Kenneth Clarke's plan to reduce the number of criminals sent to prison has led to the alarming but increasingly familiar spectacle of Labour attacking the Conservatives from the right.

In an article for today's Daily Mail, Jack Straw in effect endorses Michael Howard's declaration that "prison works". He writes:

Michael Howard took over from Kenneth Clarke as home secretary in mid-1993 and set about a different and significantly tougher policy. It wasn't all to my liking, but he deserves credit for turning the tide.

And there's more. In a remarkable act of self-punishment, he writes:

Mr Cameron's broad approach was right before the election. Indeed, so was his consistent criticism in his years in opposition that Labour was not being tough enough.

Straw, far from Labour's most authoritarian home secretary, fails to explain why his views have changed so noticeably since 2008, when he argued:

There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing reoffending than short prison sentences. The probation service has become more effective.

Could it be that the opportunity to attack the "soft" Lib Dems for allegedly dragging the Tories to the left was too good to turn down? It could be.

The truth, as Straw once knew, is that for far too many detainees, prison does not work. It is the excessive use of short sentences that has led to Britain's appalling recidivism rate. At the moment, of the 60,000 prisoners given short sentences, 60 per cent reoffend.

Nor should this come as a surprise. As Clarke will say in his speech today: "Many a man has gone into prison without a drug problem and come out drug-dependent. And petty prisoners can meet up with some new hardened criminal friends."

Clarke, a brave and honest politician, can now expect to face the combined forces of the Tory right, the Daily Mail and the Labour Party. They will cry with one voice that prison works: an offender can't commit a crime if he is behind bars. But this quick-fix, short-term approach stores up more problems than it solves.

If Clarke has the patience and the political will to reform our prison system, we will all have at least one thing to thank the coalition for.

UPDATE: For an alternative take, Peter Hoskin's post on Coffee House is worth a read.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.