6 March 2010

The second coming of Iain Gray...

Late last month, I was having a go at Scottish Labour and Tory politicians for their self-indulgent, revenge-coddling penal policies. Touting of po-faced ‘tough on crime’ credentials is amongst the most tedious features of our political discourse, not least because we never really address the underlying realities or hold these hooded inquisitors responsible for their dread urge to bang everyone up. In their haste to best one another’s promises for shackles and chains for every miserable soul dragged before the sheriff, their silences are telling.

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.

What is Scotland’s prison population? Do you know? Do most people have any idea? Governmental statisticians produced the Scottish prison population projections: 2009-10 to 2018-19 earlier this year. In 2018-19 they estimate that the daily prison population will total 9,600, compared to some 7,835 in October 2009 - 1765 higher. Their projection tracks a middle way between two other figures – with the high variant which numbers an appalling 10,200, with a low variant of 7,700, still only slightly beneath the 2009 figure. Dismal. The ‘Recent Trends’ section of the document contains a number of interesting things, including a graph of how seasonality affects the number of people in prison. Although you might think of the population as being reasonably constant, it is influenced by periods during which the criminal courts sit – and during which custodial sentences are handed down.

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…


  1. John Redwood is obviously a deep political thinker who spent quite a while musing on prison and its merits. I really like his second category of people who shouldn't be imprisoned which amounted to "all those ones over there".

    Gives you pause for thought when you remember he used to be a Government Minister, doesn't it?

  2. Speaking as a rather vague human being, sometimes I feel the benefit of my legal education. It has taken some of the edge off of my own tendency to resort to impressionistic measures. Even by those standards, Calum, you're right. Heaven knows what concrete crimes Redwood is referring to. And the baby Jesus isn't as loquacious these days as once he was!

    In this respect, we might regard this as simply a corner of the wider quilt of Tory policy. Locate your proposed changes under a category justifying a strong negative appraisal, enjoying yourself by spending a good deal of your speech on associative innuendo with which it is difficult to disagree but simultaneously difficult to understand.

    Having completed your vast and vague generalisations, then totally fail to disclose concretely what you are referring to or why it is objectionable or problematic. For me, the exemplary fatuous Tory policy in this genre is their position visa vie the Human Rights Act 1998.

    Surely Henry McLeish cannot be the only man in the Scottish Labour Party who takes these issues seriously? The rest of them seem more than content to keep their peace and outwardly bay for shackles.

  3. "Hardly has he got one ungenerous word out, when a tiny ash-sour vision of Iain Gray’s essence troubles my sight.."

    Brilliant summation. And I thought I was the only one who thought the same! Has his demeanour developed this way since becoming a politician and leader, or did the kids at Gracemount High feel the same way?

  4. Condiment - a substance used to enhance flavour and enjoyment.
    Seasoning is a tricky business - too much is as unpalatable as too little. Getting the right balance that political foodies crave appears beyond the insipid Gray, the amuse gueule that is Tavish or even the processed Tory cheese balls. The odd crumb from the nut-roast Greens is appreciated but not much Opposition soul food at Holyrood yet - it's all pretty much SNP Scotch Pie.

    Can we really take anything more seriously from our elected representatives with the election weeks away? No doubt the televised 'debates' will satisfy.

  5. Not alone Andrew BOD - as the polling tells us, those not of our opinion simply haven't heard of the poor chap!

    I suspect that he was probably corrupted by politics in general and the pressure to winnow a leader's particular grain in particular. This secondary pressure can ruin even the most reasonable and admirable second-tier lieutenant. Particularly one who has to try to project him or herself onto the public stage. Although we might not like to admit it, I'd say that our commentating culture regards unsuccessful attempters with something approaching disgust. The flailing attempts just underline everything the performer isn't, with the added condescension of having tried and failed.

  6. There are few things more admirable, Clarinda, than bringing a sustained gag to a resounding conclusion!

    On your last point, I'd suggest that we ought to take Labour's position on this particular issue seriously. While obviously, electioneering is implicated, that is merely reflective of a long term strategy and penal rhetoric which they're shamelessly content to pursue. Fatuous, certainly, but this is fatuousness of the persistent calibre, as opposed to specifically election stupidity.