Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Tories and (the ideology of) crime

The Tories, we know, are the party of order. They stand for decent, law-abiding tax-payers, and would like a little less solicitousness toward the criminals if you don't mind. But not these days - or at least not at this precise moment, for our affairs are highly volatile. The Tories are allowing themselves to be out-flanked to their right by Labour on this issue. How could this be?

Tory ideology has always included seemingly contradictory elements. Since Thatcher, the central antagonism within the Conservative Party has been between the 'mods' and the 'rockers' - the liberal right, and the reactionary right. The liberal right is concerned primarily with ensuring a stable investment condition for the efficient accumulation of capital. It is opposed to state authoritarianism on immigration and public order. The reactionary right favours the same basic economic policies, but prefers tough controls on immigration, even where these harm business interests, and a punitive criminal justice system. I would say that, very broadly speaking, these positions reflect class perspectives, inasmuch as the small business sector of the Tory party is probably more threatened by crime and social disorder than the sorts of financial corporations and multinational service industries that the Tory leadership is allied with. I would suggest that the petite bourgeois element in the Conservative bloc has never been less influential than it is in this unstable coalition, and this has allowed a certain pro-business liberalism to dominate.

Of course, the divisions don't break down quite as neatly as this schema suggests. Consider that even that greengrocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher conceded that prison was an expensive way of making bad people worse, placing her to the left of Michael "prison works" Howard on this issue. Her administration, while beefing up the coercive powers of the state in several respects, also acted on Home Office research showing that locking up young offenders just didn't work, using cautions instead of detention. Still, I think that the current administration, while comprising different strands, is thus far more socially liberal than past Tory governments and that this is an unstable situation because it derives from its unique character as a product of civil service initiative that gives it a certain independence from the typical Tory base. It is also, relatedly, one that is conducting deep cuts in the criminal justice system. This is upsetting not only the police, who are now looking to Labour to defend them, but also some of the more 'traditionalist' Tories such as David Davis, who fear that it will undermine the party's reputation on law and order.

This would be a more persuasive fear, perhaps, if this authoritarian disposition hadn't actually contributed to the Tories' reputation as the 'nasty party', and thus reduced their electoral appeal. Even in the hard right leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, an attempt - ultimately unsuccessful - was made to liberalise the party's approach to crime and social issues. Oliver Letwin, as shadow home secretary, sought to establish rehabilitation as a central Tory theme in a new "tough, but caring" approach to crime, which actually looked softer than the New Labour approach. Cameron, taking note of the polls, has attempted to re-pivot the Tories' language on the basis of a defence of 'English liberty' against New Labour nanny state authoritarianism. Appointing Ken Clarke as Home Secretary confirmed this approach, and it's certainly a logical one while in coalition with the Liberals. In addition, the Tories are committed to their austerity remedy and within that solution they have little choice but to cut deeply across the board: they can't protect the criminal justice budget without coming down even more catastrophically on social services, and thus incurring an even greater risk of provoking revolt.

Even so, anti-crime crusades have traditionally worked to buttress Tory support and co-ordinate ideological responses to ongoing crises, particularly since the Sixties - even if these have little to do with crime itself. The issue of crime articulates a number of classic Tory thematics: 'family values', since divorce and single-parenthood is supposed to contribute to an increase in youth crime; 'welfare dependency', since welfare is supposed so subsidise the sort of dysfunctional 'lifestyle' that leads to crime; 'discipline', since indiscipline in schools is held to create unruly human beings; 'responsibility', since it is argued that crime is made easier by a culture that diminishes individual responsibility (for poverty, unemployment, ignorance, etc.) by transferring the blame to society; and so on. It enables a number of punitive responses to the effects of capitalist failure. Crime is also bound in a set of connotative linkages with race, culture and nation: the criminal is the ultimate Other, the anti-social outsider, and criminality is proof of Otherness, of a lack of respectability and entitlement. Think of statements along the lines of, "there is a very real problem with a small number of Muslim men, who...", or "black on black violence is a very real problem, which...", or "illegal immigrants shouldn't be allowed to come here to escape punishment for crimes they committed in their own countries". Even if such discourses are no longer as viable as they once were, even if social authoritarianism is declining as the population becomes more educated, there is still no other issue on which conservatism enjoys such an in-built advantage, and there surely remain residual moral and political attitudes which, in a crisis, can be accessed and mobilised to the advantage of a reactionary agenda.

In addition, one of Lord Ashcroft's recent polls (for what it's worth) indicates that among potential Tory voters who backed other parties in the last election, a big issue was the perceived lack of priority given by the Conservatives to crime. A recent Yougov poll [pdf] confirms that the current administration is seen as being less 'tough' on crime than the last government, not a state of affairs the Tories will be happy with. (Labour, predictably, will be fucking delighted, though the poll results also suggest that 'toughness' is neither automatically nor uncomplicatedly popular.) Lastly, most importantly, as austerity bites and gives rise to an increase in property crime, as well as intense social conflicts, the Tories will want to 'police the crisis'. We have already seen how the student protests led to a major escalation in police repression, with the government bestialising protesters to justify their actions. A crackdown on 'violent crime', stimulated by a moral panic over some incident or other (involving Muslamic ray guns no doubt), would provide a pretext for future mobilisations, justifying a shift in resources from welfare to policing and validating the state's coercive powers. Such was the calculation that the Thatcherites made even before the Ridley Plan estimated that the social conflicts likely to be unleashed under a Tory administration would call for a massive expansion of policing.

The Tories are seemingly not well placed to exploit any sudden passion for punishment that arises as the result of a criminal outrage. Yet there are elements of Cameronite ideology that would enable a transition here. If, in the Sixties and Seventies, the ideologeme of reaction was "the Violent Society", for the Tories today it is "the broken society". The Tories have maintained that for the last decade or so that Britain is a society experiencing moral degeneration due to the breakdown of communities and families. They intend that their responses should be seen as 'humane' - promoting social action through the 'third sector' and so on. But it would be logical within those terms to reach for punitive solutions once the 'Big Society' dog fails to bark. And indeed, a deepening of the crisis, a couple of quarters of negative growth, a financial crash, a series of defaults in the eurozone, or any number of highly plausible scenarios in the foreseeable future, could finish the coalition as it presently is. In which case, the material basis for the current Tory leadership's relative social liberalism would vanish.