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16 December 2002

How Blair put 30,000 more in jail

Nick Cohen traces the Prime Minister's long march to the right on crime - a journey that he began as

By Nick Cohen

How to fill the days? When both major parties agree that the worst type of capitalism is the best and only way, what is there left to argue about on the Today programme? In a speech in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, on 19 February 1993, Tony Blair, then the shadow home affairs spokesman, delivered the answer. Crime would convince the electorate that what looked like a right-wing elite was really the voice of the common people. So effective was his solution to the difficulty of selling snobs to the mob that every session of parliament since has been dominated by law and order bills. Hundreds of new offences have been created and fundamental English liberties have been savaged or abolished. Crime defined the debased domestic politics of the 1990s, and shows no sign of losing its appeal.

To the thoughtful, Blair’s Wellingborough speech was breath-catchingly specious. James Bulger had been murdered by two ten-year-old boys a few days before. Blair should have known that pre-pubescent killers are freaks. They appear on average once every two years without reason or pattern. Their crimes do not “say” anything about the condition of England. Blair, however, chose to snatch the body of a dead toddler and pretend the crime was a comment on the state of nation. “The news bulletins of the past week have been like hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country,” he cried, urging us “to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see”.

Only a year before, Blair had seemed to be a conventional social democrat. He blamed the astonishing rise in unemployment and poverty under Margaret Thatcher for the equally astonishing rise in crime. He told the 1992 Labour conference: “When young men and women seek but do not find any reflection of their hopes in the society around them, when the Tories create a creed of acquisition and place it alongside a culture without opportunity, when communities disintegrate and people within them feel they have no chance to improve and nothing to strive for, then it takes not a degree in social science, merely a modicum of common sense, to see that, in the soil of alienation, crime will take root.”

After the Bulger speech, there was to be no more of that bleeding-heart whining. In the Sun of 3 March 1993, all talk of alienation and acquisitiveness was forgotten. Labour’s new policy was simple: “It’s a bargain,” Blair wrote. “We give opportunity, we demand responsibility. There is no excuse for crime. None.”

The Tory government was taken aback. There had been a succession of liberal home secretaries since the late 1980s who believed, in the words of the 1989 criminal justice white paper, that prison was merely “an expensive way of making bad people worse”. The Conservatives’ Criminal Justice Act 1991, had reduced the prison population by 20 per cent. In early 1993, it stood at 41,000, the lowest for years. Their right flank was exposed and Blair was attacking it.

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Kenneth Clarke, the then home secretary, correctly noted that Blair had been inspired by the success of Bill Clinton – who had proved he was a “credible contender” for the White House by ordering the execution of a mentally handicapped black convict. He didn’t think the conversion to Clintonite viciousness would last. History showed, Clarke continued on 21 February 1993, that when push came to shove, Labour would retreat into “vague stuff about how this is all really a social problem and it is all the result of economic success under Mrs Thatcher”.

The next day, Blair announced the first of what were to be dozens of proposed “crackdowns” on juvenile crime.

He had started an arms race that the Tories had to join. A private memo from John Maples, then a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said they should invent ever more reactionary policies to test new Labour’s machismo. “Either Blair will support our proposals and divide his party,” Maples reasoned, “or oppose us and show he does not really mean what he says about crime.” The silly man had failed to grasp that Blair had no line in the sand; he and his party would say or do anything.

Michael Howard, the new home secretary, was in charge of the Tory counterattack. There was to be no more talk of penal reform, because, as a strangely giggly Howard told the 1993 Tory party conference, “prison works”. The jails would be filled when the Conservatives took “the handcuffs off the police and put them back on the criminals where they belong”.

Howard followed this performance with the Criminal Justice Act 1994. At that time, it was the most repressive measure passed in peacetime since 1945. A few years earlier, the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Judith Ward and others had been released from prison after the judiciary belatedly accepted that their “confessions” to alleged terrorism had been forced from them. Howard responded by abolishing the ancient right to silence – a protection against torture which had existed since the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641.

For many, the clauses which punished ways of life rather than crimes were as sinister. Ravers, hunt saboteurs, peaceful protesters and New Age travellers were to be hounded, on the grounds that respectable opinion found them scruffy and irritating. Tony Blair persuaded John Smith that Labour should not vote against Michael Howard.

When Blair succeeded Smith as party leader, Labour became new Labour and Jack Straw became shadow home secretary. The young Jack Straw was elected leader of the National Union of Students with communist support. Ever since, he had quoted Stalin’s dictum: “Once the political line has been settled, organisation counts for all.” The political line from Blair was to be harder and meaner than the Tories’, and new Labour’s formidable apparat would enforce it. Straw responded to Howard’s criminalisation of subcultures, by declaring a class war of his very own. He promised, in September 1995, to “reclaim the streets for the law-abiding citizen from the aggressive begging of winos and addicts and the squeegee merchants who wait at large road junctions to force on reticent motorists their screen-cleaning service”.

He was greeted by universal mockery, and backed down the next day. He said he had been misunderstood. Twenty-four hours later, he backed back up again after Blair told him to reverse his U-turn. As his confidence grew, Straw developed what was to become the standard cant of the new elite. He was resolutely opposed to the “moral relativist brigade who argue there is little point doing anything much about young offenders from deprived areas until the underlying cause of their deprivation has been tackled”. For new Labour, it was suddenly relativist, maybe even immoral, to fight for an alleviation of poverty and the reduction of inequality.

As the 1997 general election approached, a desperate and frantic Conservative government packed parliament with crime bills. New Labour scarcely opposed one of them. The party dropped its opposition to a Prevention of Terrorism Act, which Blair had condemned as late as 1993. John Major’s plan to force the British to carry identity cards – which violated the common law principle that the law-abiding citizen does not have to explain himself to authority – was defeated by opposition in the cabinet rather than opposition by the Opposition.

In 1996, Jack Straw told me he wanted to impose curfews on children. About an hour later, he asked me to forget what he had said, as it was an off-the-cuff remark. I refused and published his comments in the Observer. As a result of the publicity, Straw preferred to make martial law for tots official new Labour policy, rather than admit he had made a mistake.

Still, there were differences between the parties. New Labour resolutely opposed Conservative plans to restrict the right to trial by jury. In 1993, Blair had been the champion of juries. “Fundamental rights to justice cannot be determined by administrative convenience,” he declared. In February 1997, Straw echoed his leader and condemned assaults on juries as “wrong and short-sighted”. New Labour was also opposed to building “secure training centres” – jails for children as young as 12 – and private prisons, which were “morally repugnant”, in the words of Straw.

After the election, Labour’s opposition to prison privatisation evaporated. Straw promised, in October 1997, to “put a rocket” up the youth justice system and crack down on youth crime. The rocket sites were to be secure training centres. The first was in Cookham Wood, Kent. The price of incarcerating each child at Cookham was £250,000 a year – 20 times the then cost of a place at Eton. The consequences of bringing together the most disturbed children in the country were felt at the second centre, the Medway kiddie jail. In June 1998, they rioted and trashed the prison. Straw’s reaction was to promise another 30 centres.

Crime dominated the first term. The Queen’s Speech of 1999, for instance, included nine anti-crime bills. Criminals who did not comply with “tough new” community penalties would have their social security benefits cut. People accused of burglary, theft, shoplifting and common assault would lose the right to trial by jury. Those who believed what Blair and Straw had once believed about juries were no longer defenders of basic freedom, Straw sneered, but “BMW-driving civil liberties lawyers” who subscribed to a “woolly-minded liberalism”. He did not explain how denying the public the power to pass judgement as members of a jury was anti-elitist, and few asked him to.

Nor were many concerned about the effectiveness of the relentless authoritarianism. My guilty conscience at Labour’s creating curfews was eased somewhat when not one local authority applied for a child curfew order. Councillors reasoned that it was impossible for the police to tell the difference between a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old, and officers’ energy would be better spent chasing criminals. Rather than lose face and admit defeat, the government extended the upper age limit on curfews to 15.

At the beginning of 1999, the regime was being battered by Peter Mandelson’s home-loan scandal and the order went out to ministers to come up with something to distract the press. The Home Office revived a three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, which had been devised by Michael Howard, but never enforced. Acres of space were devoted to the supposedly tough penalty – all of them wasted. The three-strikes legislation was meant to impose mandatory jail sentences on persistent burglars, but it had a get-out clause that gave judges leeway. Not one judge has imposed a mandatory punishment on a burglar since 1999.

In 2001, Downing Street and the Lord Chancellor’s Department ordered night courts to deliver instant justice to hooligans, violent drunks and persistent teenage offenders caught staying out late on the streets. This measure, too, was spun as the zero tolerance of hard men. Civil servants were worried from the start. How will defendants get lawyers, they asked? How will parents get to the court in time to comfort and help their arrested children? The prison service added that opening up jails in the middle of the night to let in convicts would be a security risk. Night courts, too, were quietly dropped.

As initiatives and legislation poured out, you could catch brief glimpses of the cynicism of our rulers. In December 2000, Blair made a revealing slip when he bellowed in the Commons at William Hague and Ann Widdecombe, the then shadow home secretary: “What is the alternative? What does the Right Hon Gentleman offer? Why was it that he made a policy-free speech, apart from a load of nonsense from the shadow home secretary, most of which we are doing in any event?” In the same year, a memo leaked from Downing Street showed Blair in a fury because “we are perceived as soft” on crime. The perception was entirely false, as Blair was the first to admit. Nevertheless, he was more than willing to waste the time of parliament and the civil service to counter it. He ordered his courtiers to redress the “lack of a tough public message”. They “should think now of an initiative, eg, locking up street muggers. Something tough, with immediate bite, which sends a message through the system. Maybe, the driving licence penalty for young offenders. But this should be done soon, and I, personally, should be associated with it.”

An asinine scheme to allow the police to march offenders to cashpoints and take their money was devised for the Prime Minister by Alastair Campbell and Lord Falconer. It was dropped.

In public, new Labour and the Tories had to pretend that Britain was a permissive society. How else could they claim to be populist heroes fighting the establishment? Thus William Hague stood in the 2001 election on a papier-mache platform made from yellowing Daily Mail cuttings. Without a blush or an acknowledgement of what had happened since the Bulger murder, he denounced the “liberal thinking on crime which has pervaded our criminal justice system for 40 years” and promised to “scare the hell out of offenders”.

Hague had fallen into a trap. New Labour was able to present itself as a sensible centrist party up against far-right weirdos. One of Hague’s far-right crime policies was to abolish the double jeopardy rule (a person, once acquitted, cannot be charged again for the same offence), which had survived all the tyrannical monarchs, civil wars and world wars since the 14th century.

With Labour safely returned, David Blunkett, the new Home Secretary, said he liked the idea of abolishing double jeopardy and would do it himself. Tradition demanded that he announce a crackdown on youth crime. He duly did. But Blunkett also showed his tender side. He wistfully said he wanted the prison service to rehabilitate offenders. His hope was utopian. Years of gesture politics had driven the prison population from 41,000 in 1993 to 72,000. The jails could barely hold their charges.

You might have thought that after almost a decade of lies, cynical promises, failed initiatives and assaults on the essence of English liberty, Blair would give it a rest. But posturing on crime is all he knows, and he’s too old to change his ways. The 2002 Queen’s Speech was like so many of its predecessors: stuffed with crime bills. Fair trials would be prejudiced by allowing juries to hear defendants’ previous convictions. The number of jury trials would be cut again. Why? Because, as Blair implied at this year’s party conference, no one had done anything about crime in years. The issue had fallen from the news and the criminal justice system allowed to drift. He would put a stop to the neglect. It was time, he declared to the amnesiac audience, to “rebalance the system emphatically and in favour of the victims of crime”.