One of the greatest of political survivors is the new Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who has fearlessly made the suggestion that the current prison population (over 85,000 and counting) is too high. He is correct: one of the most abject failures of the New Labour Project was the slavish trimming in the direction of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre and his team of mean spirited hacks at the Rothermere press.
And little good it did them: the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday were contemptuous of Labour from start to finish, as full of bile in 2010 as they were in 1997. Nevertheless, under the watch of ministers like the otherwise relatively sane Jack Straw, Labour kept banging up more and more offenders, and all the while maintained the ritual incantation that told anyone listening that this was the only way to reduce crime.
Well, what goes around comes around, it seems: Clarke’s message, that he is looking to rehabilitate prisoners, bring down reoffending rates, and not use jail as some kind of default option, may seem a sensible opening to a debate that needs to be had, but Paul Dacre clearly wants none of it. Hence the Daily Mail describing the response to Clarke’s remarks as a “furore”.
My view is that, if Dacre and his motley band of overpaid and overrated hacks want to make policy, then they should stand for elective office, like Clarke and everyone else in the Commons. If they want to have a mature and coherent debate on the issue, then that is what should be promoted by the Daily Mail, not the slanted “journalism” and screaming denunciation that is being produced right now.
Ken Clarke is that rare bloke: he’s a Tory through and through, but garners respect from across the political spectrum because he’s a straight talker, while being agreeable with it. He has, unlike some of his colleagues, retained his sense of humour. Maybe this explains why I find myself on the same side of the debate as Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda, who has blogged with unerring common sense on the subject.
The problem, which Dale’s post does not mention, is that so much of the Fourth Estate, as well as many in his own party, cannot bring themselves to have the debate without howling down anyone they perceive as “soft on crime”.
We need to be as consistently sensible and grown up as Ken Clarke on the issue. And if Paul Dacre and his assembled hacks can’t manage this, they should leave the debate to those who can.