2000s >> 2009 >> no-1254-february-2009

Greasy Pole: Standing out in the crowd

“Doing things sober is no way to get things done”

Only the most demandingly optimistic – or perhaps the most seriously deluded – could have expected anything original to spring from Tony Blair’s infamously airy assurance that his governments would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. In unashamed voter appeal, the process of ascertaining, and then dealing with, the causes of such a massive social problem was made to sound very simple. Except that it ignored the direct co-relation between crime and the poverty which is inescapable in this society of privilege and alienation. There was no need for an expertly number-crunching statistician, or a professor of history, to cast doubt on Blair’s assumption that crime could be diminished through brushing up some of the more threatening housing estates, or manipulating the benefits entitlement system to make it even more baffling than before. Blair’s dream was that crime could be refashioned from an electoral liability into a vote winner.

 But that first part of Blair’s promise – to ensure that appropriately punitive measures would be taken to repress crime – has been rather more fertile than the second. So we have had ten years of new laws flooding onto the Statute Book; as the lawyers have thrived thousands of new offences have been created, harsher penalties have been applied by the courts and the prisons have been full to bursting. In the background are the plans for a new generation of titanic prisons – in the building of which the contractors will thrive – to accommodate the predicted rise in demand for cell spaces. The fact that none of these panic-stricken measures has been effective has only served to stimulate more, equally false and doomed, supposed remedies.


 The latest of these lays it down that offenders who have been sentenced to a spell of what used to be called Community Service must, while working under that Order, wear brightly visible jackets on the back of which, to distinguish them from men emptying refuse bins or mending telephone lines, the words “Community Payback” – of a minimum size laid down in some official circular – must appear. The idea is that when the offenders are working – scrubbing off graffiti, clearing undergrowth in the park, sorting goods in a charity shop – they will be openly identified as people who have broken the law.  This example of what Blair meant by getting tough on crime did not meet with universal approval; there were those, including organisations benefiting from the work, who objected to what they saw as the offenders’ public humiliation –  as outdated as the stocks and the pillory and excessive, when the work ordered by the Court was punishment enough. Some members of the Labour Party might have wondered about their place in an organisation they had joined on the assumption that it would deal with something as  sensitive as crime in a manner which would be, before all else, humane. They could not have expected that their party would be more concerned with gaining the approval of the leader writers of the Daily Mail.

 Predictably, the government denied any intention other than to re-assure the voters that offenders are being suitably punished. Justice Minister David Hanson put it:  “The public expects to see justice being done and this is what the jackets achieve”. He did not dwell on the fact that those who are allocated under Community Payback to work in public places are, except in very rare cases, not guilty of the kind of offences serious enough to make “the public” particularly anxious to witness their punishment. A recent example was the case of 22 young people who were sentenced by an Essex District Judge to periods of between 50 and 90 hours Community Payback. Many of them had impressive academic records and are already voluntarily engaged in community work. Members of the Plane Stupid group, their offence was to disrupt flights out of Stansted Airport by blocking the runway; “I accept,” said the Judge “There is an honourable tradition of peaceful protest in this country, and long may it continue. But…”

Tsar Of All She Surveys

 More to the taste of David Hanson and other Labour ministers is Louise Casey, currently known as the Criminal Justice System Tsar, whose CV includes spells as the Homelessness Tsar, ASBO Tsar and Respect Tsar. Casey responded incandescently, and predictably,  to those who expressed reservations about the jackets by alleging that they are “on the side of the criminal rather than the victims ”. She is something of a controversial figure, remembering herself as a “restless teenager” who longed to leave home .During her time as ASBO Tsar she raised a few ministerial eyebrows by telling an audience of senior civil servants, chief constables and the like “I suppose you can’t binge drink any more because lots of people have said you can’t do it. I don’t know who bloody made that up; it’s nonsense…doing things sober is no way to get things done”. Warming to her theme about the professional advantages of inebriation, the Respect Tsar suggested that some ministers might perform better if they “turn up in the morning pissed.” It says a lot about New Labour’s views on the effects of capitalism on its people, that its government employs someone like Casey to pressgang us into official ideas of acceptable behaviour.

T ypical of capitalism’s many and varied assaults on human well-being, crime is a massive, extremely nasty problem which causes loss, distress and fear to workers who are already under the pressures of survival. But that can also be said about the events and policies which are massively more damaging to human community but are unpunished because they are perfectly legal. Today’s examples of this are the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza and the devastating poverty in the recession. Those who, as capitalism’s leaders, organise and defend these outrages are tricksters. It would be consistent, if not crucially constructive, for them to have to parade their impotence, dishonesty and malice by publicly wearing something instantly recognisable. Like a jacket? But it would be difficult to think of wording for it to carry, adequately to express their wretched futility.      



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