Alex Massie

Ken Clarke Is Right

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Actually, Ken Clarke is one of the Good Tories. Indeed, one could spend some time speculating on how the Conservative party might have fared had it chosen him to lead it and not, say, Iain Duncan Smith. (Yes, there's europe but...) Obviously then, this means some people think he personifies everything that is wrong with the Conservative party and never mind that he was a better Chancellor than anyone who's held that job since.

And so Clarke is right to argue that we should probably send fewer people to prison and thus I disagree - respectfully! - with the Spectator's editorial on the subject. This doesn't mean - as the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade sometimes like to suggest - that we should't send anyone to chokey but a re-evaluation of the utility of, in particular, short-term prison sentences would be more than useful.

For that matter, a review of criminal offences is also long-overdue. There are thousands more of them than there were in 1997 which is one reason for out burgeoning prison population. Nor is it obvious that locking more people up necessarily has a great impact on crime. Indeed, crime levels have fallen in most countries in recent years and by much the same rate as in Britain, despite other countries lesser enthusiasm for locking people up. (This is also one of the fallacies of the New York "Broken Windows" approach to policing: it has its merits and can certainly be justified but fails to take account of the fact that crime fell just as rapidly in American cities not called New York and which didn't take its approach to policing.)

So I agree with Iain Dale on this. It's simplistic to say "prison works" when quite clearly it frequently does not. (This doesn't mean that it can't work or that prisons are, you know, unnecessary.) Labour ministers - Blunkett and Straw most especially - seemed to think that locking more and more people up was a badge of progress, not an admission that something was going rather badly wrong somewhere. It's refreshing to see a Conservative minister having the guts to think again.

Again, if you really want to cut the prison population you might want to look at, I don't know, our drug laws: fully 15% of UK prisoners are incarcerated on account of the drug laws, the result of a "War on Drugs" that, while not as absurd or villainous as that prosecuted in the United States, remains utterly pointless and unwinnable even if you consider it morally justified.

Still, prison reform is only part of the matter: changing the culture at the CPS (in England & Wales) and, indeed, the police also has to be part of the programme.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.