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5 March 2001

The punishment boom

Nick Cohenfollows Tony Blair to prison and finds him determined to be the first prime minister to go

By Nick Cohen

On the sharp, bright morning of 26 February, Tony Blair went to Pentonville jail. The ineptitude of the police and permissiveness of our notoriously liberal judiciary are such that no serving prime minister had been sent to prison before him. Unfortunately, the novel experience produced no reformation. Bathos and menace characterised his day, as they have characterised much of his first administration.

Pentonville is a glum Victorian block built on the western edge of Islington in London; a borderland suffocated by traffic fumes, where the high-bourgeois homes of Blair’s former dinner-table guests fade into the forlorn bars and decrepit estates of Kings Cross. A whiff of absurdity was in the air. Although the prime ministerial inspection had been announced on all the early- morning news programmes, not a single passer-by stopped to watch. A woman, who was little more than a girl, came to the entrance gate. She told me she was going to visit her boyfriend.

“Is Tony Blair in there?” she asked.

“Yes, he went in about ten minutes ago.”

“Oh, I’ll come back later then.”

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She didn’t grimace or sneer. She didn’t seem to be anti- government or anti-Blair, or pro or anti anything in particular. She just did not want to be around a politician. A few weeks earlier, I had watched a crowd gather to applaud “celebrities” arriving at a West End premiere. I use inverted commas because no one I spoke to in the throng had the faintest idea who the minor stars were – or whether, indeed, they were stars at all. They hollered and stuck out autograph books nevertheless. I thought I could help by trying to be a journalist. “Who are you? Why are you famous?” I bellowed at the tuxedos and strapless dresses. A policeman rushed at me with genuine anger in his eyes and ordered me to be silent. For a moment, I thought I was going to be the first man to be arrested for lese-celebrity.

In Islington, the most celebrated politician in the land did not attract a single lingering glance. The prison guards had no crowd to control. The feeling that modern politics is a frenetic game being played in an emptying stadium became just a tad stronger.

Officially, Blair wasn’t at the jail to wave to the public, but to talk to inmates and staff before the launch of “new” Labour’s ten-year crime programme in the afternoon. His experience could not have informed his policies. The visit lasted a mere 30 minutes; and, in any case, the strategy had been decided months ago, after a panicking Philip Gould instructed the Home Office to come up with gimmicks as meretricious as William Hague’s posturings in the cause of Tony Martin, jailed for killing an intruder at his Norfolk farmhouse. The jail was a backdrop for the filming of Premier, Cell Block H.

Even by the standards of these confected encounters, it was a strange photo-opportunity. Only two photographers and a television cameraman were allowed to greet the PM. They formed “the pool” selected by the Prison Service to supply the rest of the media. Blair wouldn’t pose behind bars or with cell doors slamming in his face. He suspected, astutely, that the photos might be used against him for years, and his caution almost created the first photo- opportunity without photographs, until the grumpy cameramen decided to make do with dull shots of the PM in a cramped prison classroom. These found 15, maybe 14, seconds of fame on the lunchtime news, then disappeared.

The menace came in the Commons later that day. Jack Straw announced that the crime programme would include the building of an extra 2,660 cell places. You have to close your ears to the loud and increasingly vicious consensus to appreciate the weirdness of it all. New Labour was not pledging to reduce crime and thus the need for prisons. It was not proposing to relieve overcrowding in slum jails where beatings, gangsterism, suicide and murder have driven Martin Narey, the director general of the Prison Service, to threaten to resign if the misery is not abated. Since Blair and Michael Howard began the arms race on crime, both parties have accepted implicitly that the prison population will rise. However, the sentiment was concealed in statements along the lines of “we will lock up all the criminals the courts send us”. I am happy to be corrected on this point, but I am certain that politicians have never before entered an election singing out loud and proud that a victory would generate more convicts.

A growing prison population was once a sign of a dictatorship, class war or social breakdown. It is now a bright performance indicator; a target we should be happy to meet. Like falling hospital waiting-lists or better batting averages for the Test side, more prisoners will allow the government to hold its head high.

Techno-utopianism and a potentially calamitous switch in judicial practice lie behind the punishment boom. Whitehall has always been susceptible to gee-whizzery, and Blair’s trot round Pentonville was accompanied by squeaks from spin-doctors about how DNA samples will soon have been collected from three million potential criminals. With this resource, tens of thousands of currently unsolved crimes will be wrapped up and the guilty will, in many cases, go to jail.

The enthusiasts are likely to be disappointed. Just as the invention of finger-printing did not stem the crime rises of the 20th century, DNA profiling can be countered. The police may just have the resources to comb murder scenes for stray hairs shed by assailants, but their budgets will have to increase beyond reason if every inch of every burgled living-room is to be examined.

More serious was the government’s willingness to tear up the principles of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act. Straw cannot stand the current law’s insistence that the punishment should fit the crime. He has established a review of the legislation, and begged Simon Heffer, a rebarbative Mail columnist, to join it. (I have found, incidentally, that repetition of this one fact can make the most devout new Labour loyalist convert to Trotskyism.)

The 1991 act was based on the concept of “just deserts”. A defendant should be sentenced solely for the crime that was before the court. He should not, except in serious cases, receive a higher sentence because he had previous convictions. He had already paid the price for those.

Writing in 1992, John Patten, then a Home Office minister, explained that the act would keep “young offenders away from prison where otherwise they would learn the finer and more sophisticated techniques of crime. This is a form of higher education to be avoided at all costs, and the cost is very little if one recognises that those who may be today’s shoplifters can be prevented from becoming tomorrow’s muggers.” Patten was a member of what many regarded at the time as the most right-wing regime of the 20th century. He would be certified as a lunatic liberal extremist in today’s Westminster.

Finding punishments that fit crimes is the principle behind classical, retributive justice. It has been abandoned twice before, in the 1860s and 1960s. Blair proposes to dump it again and tell the courts, in the words of the Home Secretary, to make the “punishment fit the criminal as well as the crime”.

At first glance, this might not seem such a bad idea. If your video were stolen, you might be shocked if the housebreaker got away with community service, despite having 50 previous convictions for minor offences. But as the social experimenters of the past found, concentrating on the character of the criminal, rather than on the seriousness of the offence, leads learned judges into indefensible folly. A first-time rapist can receive a lower sentence than a habitual shoplifter. In the 1990s, the case of the Californian who was jailed for life for stealing a pizza was cited around the world. Nothing could be done for him. The state had a three-strikes-and-you’re-out-for-life law, and the snatched lunch was his third felony.

The emphasis on character rather than crimes allowed Blair and Straw to hint that they would permit juries to be told of the previous convictions of “criminals” before reaching a verdict. Their menace shone through their language. A man in a dock is not a “criminal”, but a “suspect” or “defendant” who is innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Do not think the government was merely waffling off the top of its head and wouldn’t dare prejudice fair trials. This administration has assaulted trial by jury and the presumption of innocence. The defining absence of “new” Labour is its lack of a line in the sand. It has no moral or intellectual base. You can never reassure yourself that you know these people well enough to be certain that there are some steps they would never take.

Many involved in criminal justice believe ministers capable of anything. But Paul Cavadino, the director of policy for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, and another Straw adviser, doubted whether the shift in sentencing principles would have a great effect. The 1991 act may prevent the courts taking previous convictions into account, he said, but it still required judges to pay attention to the previous good character of the defendant, which often amounted to the same thing.

It is a familiar line of argument – which I have found always plays well with liberal editors of the highbrow variety and the BBC. The stunts that politicians pull are strictly for the purblind masses and their gruesome tabloids, but we in our lofty eminence know they are mere gestures for the mob and that the world will carry on as before. Thus curfews for tots out after bedtime, antisocial behaviour orders for rowdy youths and mandatory punishments for burglars – all unveiled with sinister brio by Straw – were almost completely ignored by the courts and local authorities.

But I would advise you to be wary before accepting this pseudo-sophisticated consolation. Crime is a serious subject that is cursed by the ease with which cheap politicians and journalists can exploit it. The crowd-pleasing gestures of the past eight years may not have amounted to much, but Britain has changed for all that.

After the 1991 act, the prison population dropped to 42,000. It is 64,000 today – despite crime falling from 1995 onwards – and is predicted to reach 75,000 by 2005. This astonishing rise cannot be explained by changes in the law. The measures introduced by Howard and Straw were, as I said, largely meaningless. What has altered is the attitude of the judiciary.

Harry Fletcher, the spokesman for the probation officers union, Napo, said that judges and magistrates are nowhere near as independent as they like to believe. If politicians and the press are screaming for higher sentences, that is what they give them. In 1993, 49 per cent of convicted defendants before the crown courts for indictable offences were jailed. That proportion rose to 63 per cent last year.

Blair’s staff picked their prison with care. Of the other jails near Downing Street, Brixton was described by the chief inspector of prisons as “scandalous” and “totally unacceptable”; while Blair’s own director general said Wormwood Scrubs was suffused with an atmosphere of “intimidation”. Pentonville, by contrast, was a successful lock-up whose record would raise no awkward questions for the PM. The way the government is going, I wouldn’t count on Pentonville hanging on to its good name. The first prime ministerial visit to a jail could well be the last.

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