Friday, June 23, 2006
This government has gone further than any postwar government, Labour or Tory, in criminalising behaviour that is not criminal, particularly with their ASBOs scam. They have introduced wave after wave of new legislation, burning up parliamentary time which - like oil and gas - is finite. What an enlightened day in parliament it must have been, for instance, when instead of deciding to increase pensions or abolish prescription fees, the government decided that it could criminalise the parents of truant children.
Blair has decided, in the service of this debate, to unleash another of his non-sequiturs on us:
It’s no use saying that in theory there should be no contradiction between the rights of the suspect and the rights of that law-abiding majority. In practice there is such a conflict and every day we don’t resolve it, the consequence is not abstract, it’s out there, very real, on our streets.
Read that very carefully. The rights, not of the criminal, but of the suspect, the individual who is supposedly innocent until proven guilty. Blair has already introduced a massive curtailment to the presumption of innocence in ASBO cases by changing the formulation for proven guilt from "beyond a shadow of a doubt" to "on the balance of probabilities". This, one supposes, is the kind of "first principle" that the Prime Minister wants to despatch. Of course it is already tolerably well known that the rights of proven criminals are indeed suspended (it is known as sentencing), but this won't be the last time the very obvious appears to be absent from Blair's purview.
In Blair's Criminal justice speech, there is the usual focus on perceptions - we (the government) have a wonderful record, but unfortunately no one believes it because of the publicity. But the reason people believe the publicity is because they "think the political and legal establishment are out of touch". They are right to think this because that establishment has sometimes mustered a sinew of opposition to the government's really jolly necessary measures. The reason these measures are necessary is because the public don't have confidence in the political and legal establishment, which is out of touch because the public say so, who are right because... well, we could be here a long time if we were to trace that coiling absence of an argument right down to its epicentre.
Blair adumbrates the present position: "As the 20th Century opened the number of crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales per head of population were at its lowest since the first statistics were published in 1857. By 1997 the number of crimes recorded by the police was 57 times greater than in 1900. Even allowing for population growth it was 29 times higher. Theft had risen from 2 offences per 1,000 people in 1901 to 55.7 in 1992."
That is the standard view given by official parliamentary statistics. However, and the title of the chart in the linked report should be a giveaway, there were a great many more things treated as crimes in 1997 than there were in 1900 - drug prohibition has contributed massively to crime statistics, while adding to actual crimes such as theft because the only way to sustain certain artificially expensive addictions is to either be one of Blair's yuppie friends or to pinch televisions. Not only that, but it happens to be reasonably well established that until the 1930s, the police recorded many thefts (particularly those inflicted on the poor) as simply lost property. Reporting was very low during the Victorian era at any rate, since the poor did not respect or trust the police. The level of crime has risen and fallen, usually in sync with the economic cycle - during recessions, property crime is unusually high, but it falls back down when more people are in work (and therefore have neither as much motive nor as much opportunity to steal).
Blair goes on to provide a Whiggish patina for some obnoxiously reactionary discourse: crime results from the increase in single-parent families, higher divorce rates, the breakdown of discipline in family and schools. However, the "moral underpinning of this society has not, of course, disappeared entirely. That is why our anti-social behaviour legislation, for example, has proved so popular – because it is manifestly on the side of the decencies of the majority." What sort of "decencies"? Well: "shame, for example". Where once people enforced shame informally on young people who made rude gestures and spat on the pavement, now the government must echo those old "moral categories" through law enforcement. Then, law enforcement is no longer about catching criminals, but about making non-criminals ashamed on non-indictable behaviour. It is about shaming homeless people who beg for change, teenagers with tourettes, suicidal women and the mentally unwell.
There follows some scrapping with a couple of straw men, and then more apology for what is already government policy, but the crux of it is this 'seismic change' (to which is added "global terrorism based on a perversion of Islam"). It is "globalisation", the forces of which call for a profoundly authoritarian state (but not one prepared to protect jobs or social welfare). There is a sinister warning that the Prime Minister intends to import his disastrous 'reforms' of public services such as the NHS and education into the courts system, and he specifically calls for "breaking down the monopoly, 'one size fits all' court provision". Perhaps he intends to introduce a new layer of elite community courts for the best crimmos. More likely, he means that he wants to have some courts where accountability, the presumption of innocence and the right to trial by one's peers are all eroded. There's something even more sinister: Blair wants to "reach" families that are likely to produce offenders "before they offend" since "we can identify such families virtually as their children are born". What does this mean? One monitors couples as they arrive in the maternity wing? Police surveillance? Well what, exactly, is "reaching" supposed to mean "before they want such intervention", in the context of a putative likely criminality?
As usual, there is the stench of racism around this "debate". Not so long ago, government ministers were blaming "hip hop culture" and the So Solid Crew for violent crimes, and recently the issue has been invidiously connected to the issue of migration because some people who had committed crimes and served their time were not deported when they might have been. This morning, Kelvin Mackenzie was allowed to say on the BBC that the increase in crime was due to increased migration. Blair raises the issue of Zimbabwean asylum seekers whom his government attempted to deport, and bemoans the court decisions which frustrated this - indeed, he attacks the very idea that one shouldn't deport someone to a country where they are likely to be tortured or perhaps killed. What if they were suspected of terrorism?, he asks. You might well ask yourself - the answer would conventionally be to charge them and try and prove the case against them, but this elementary observation simply eludes Blair. As well for him, since we know that Mr Straw deported Iraqi asylum seekers, explaining in a letter to them that he was confident that Iraq's legal system would try them fairly. But it is acceptable to treat would-be immigrants in this fashion because "each time an illegal immigrant enters the country ... someone else's liberties are contravened". The white man's liberty, in short.
Ironies abound to the immense discredit of the Prime Minister: he actually says at one point that there is a strong desire to avoid the complexities of the situation "by taking refuge in simple explanations and remedies". Blair's simple explanation: not enough discipline, too many single moms, families broken down, too much drugs, too many teen yobs and too much illegal migration. Blair's simple remedy: more prisons, more police, longer sentences, revoke the right to trial by jury, summary punishment, deport more illegal immigrants. This is exactly the Prime Minister's prognosis and solution, and it happens to bear a remarkable similarity to that of the far right.
This isn't to say that crimes such as theft, rape, murder and so on aren't serious issues, or that no increase in crime is detectible. Homicide would almost certainly be much higher than it is if it weren't for improvements in medical care. There is a real problem with the increase in violent crimes, which are rooted in alienation, depression, and the various forms of self-medication that one seeks: booze, for instance. But if more police numbers, more prisons and longer sentences were adequate and appropriate to this situation, then the enormous increase in police numbers in recent decades would have seen crime fall. The huge amounts of money spent by the Thatcher government on building up the Home Office and the police would have resulted in a reduction of crime. Instead, crime shot up during the 1980s and the Metropolitan Police (of all sources) accused the government at the time of pursuing "an economic policy, which includes a Treasury-driven social policy, that has one goal - the reduction of inflation. Any adverse social byproducts are accepted as necessary casualties in the pursuit of the overall objective". The Prime Minister tacitly acknowledges the connection with drugs, but not the ridiculous 'right' that the state reserves to criminalise those wish to purchase and use them. The government has previously acknowledged a connection with structural poverty, but it will persist in policies that inevitably and deliberately maintain a pool of unemployed labour (and thereby repress wages), all the while taking every opportunity to try and diminish and dismantle the welfare net and hit the very poorest in society.
Kelvin Mackenzie gets the last word here, because he accidentally hit upon something in the middle of his sleazy tirade: he said we have become a "criminalised society".