One of the creatures blogging at the Spectator, with its usual weary, self-congratulatory tone – if only I was PM, the buttery Fraser Nelson gurns, languorously – responded positively recently to this article by John Redwood, entitled ‘Fewer Prisons, Fewer Prison Places’, which fleetingly argues that since “our cuts in spending need to be wide ranging. One good cut would be fewer criminals in prison.” The sort of prisoners he has in mind are “those people who commit crimes by taking money or property that does not belong to them, ranging from the common thief to the fraudster.” Joy to be on the political right! Heaven forfend not setting piles of folk behind bars because it is unjust, unnecessary, unproductive – or not spending our political time and energy dreaming up mandatory minimum sentences to fetter discretion in a way that tends to punish the idiotic, rather than the clearly culpable. Nah, screw that. We’ve got to wait for John Redwood to adduce the really significant argument - jail is just too expensive. Perhaps conceding the point with a tinge of regret, this conceited conservatism flatters itself with reaching the conclusion only through judicious fiscal necessity, in the face of public penury and the swollen prison population. I’m not saying that the economics of the thing are insignificant. Rather, I object to the impression that reaching the conclusion that the prison population is too high using an abacus and a beancounter is brave, honest politicking – while simply objecting without grubbing about in the public purse is gauche idealism, culpable cowardy custard stuff, a coddler’s expedient.
That spasm of disgust about the balance of the arguments aside, we should at least commend Redwood for engaging with the issue in a way that Baillie Bill Aitken and the Richard Baker, the Swine Pursuivant, seem incapable of doing. And at least his argument might take us in the right direction. Last week, Iain Gray asked the Maximum Eck about the knife crime provisions at FMQs. Salmond managed to be more muted than I would have been. Then again, he has to sternly splash and evade being rubbed in salt and having his flesh cured by the vengeful tabloid press. There is nothing representative about deluding the public about the consequences of their muddled preferences (or more precisely, politicians’ and press narrators’ apprehensions about public preferences on imprisonment). The public think the prison population should expand? Then the public should be faced with the brutal funding reality which this enforces, the alternative programs that will have to be ditched. Just as Labour and Tory spenders should be held entirely responsible for putting instruments of colossal, demonic war before bettering the lives of ordinary citizens.
To put the big numbers of the overall population in perspective, here is the graph, indicating how that population broke down between January 2000 & October 2009. “Short-term” is defined for these purposes as being sentences less than four years. “Long-term” defined, predictably, as greater than four years.
Increasingly, the Scottish Labour Party is like the Bible – plausible enough at a distance, but actually attend to its script and its detail and try to stomach supporting it then. The old epithets of ignorance won’t come as easily, I assure you. Just as many people’s Christianity is sustained by not opening the Scriptures, so too others’ commitment to Scottish Labour can only be based on one remove of understanding from their bland strategic panderings, their more of less conscious disingenuousness, reflective of their lack of interest in being honest with the country about its choices. Increasingly for me, this is emblematic of the great squandering of Iain Gray, that existential self-mutilation that we observe weekly, slowly shredding whatever reputation the man was once blessed with. I think it was Caron who once suggested that for her money, he does not suit his snarl, and does not wear his attempts at aggression well. I’d agree. It is traditional to refer to the dull-dog as ‘decent’, however dour and charmless and humourless he might be. Increasingly, in the face of his political choices, that faith is difficult to sustain. Hardly has he got one ungenerous word out, when a tiny ash-sour vision of Iain Gray’s essence troubles my sight - Somewhere on a grimy tabletop, a clotted bottle of malt vinegar sits with a fag stubbed out in it…