Greasy Pole: Tough on Sound Bites, Tough on the Causes of…

Somewhere in the darker recesses of Ten Downing Street, or in a basement at party headquarters, or in a corner of some cramped room in the Houses of Parliament, lengthily educated people are slaving at the construction of sound bites. Sometimes – and such an event is almost as earth-shattering as Archimedes and his bath – they chisel out a phrase so perfectly succinct and attention-demanding that it goes down in the history of oral deceptions. The employer of these ardent people – some high flying politician desperate to catch the public ear if only for brief moment in time – will use the phrase as soon as possible. Especially if there is an appropriate crisis going on (which means most of the time). On the following day it will be thick in the headlines, clogging up the TV news bulletins, in substitute for a proper awareness of what is happening in the world. And then, perhaps, it will be forgotten.

But sometimes sound bites have a nasty habit of biting the tongue that speaks them, of changing from a persuasive slogan to a cringing embarrassment. There was, for example, Harold Macmillan’s boast that during those times the people of Britain had never had it so good. It was not only those who were having it bad – like the two million people who were poor enough to get National Assistance – who disbelieved Macmillan. In fact there was an outraged reaction against him and the man known as Unflappable Mac must have cursed the day he drawled out those scornful, immortal words.

But one who has been among the most persistent and skilled of the purveyors of sound bites is Tony Blair. How many of his most cherished examples of this subtle art must he now bitterly regret? It is certain that among the most embarrassing is his famous assurance that his government would be “…tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. At the time it convinced many people as the perfect solution, covering every concept of crime from those who regard it as trivial responses to a psychologically unsatisfactory infancy to those who slaver that all criminals should be, if not summarily executed, locked up for ever. But like all sound bites, it overlooked the nasty realities of capitalism – in this case the reality that crime is not susceptible to such a simple approach. If we take one of the most commonly used measures of the size of the problem – the numbers of offences notified to the police – the fact is that in 2003 crime remained overall at about the same level as in 2002. Some offences, including burglary and theft from cars, were down by two percent while others, notably violence against the person, were up by 11 percent.


To enforce the first part of Blair’s sound bite – the bit about being tough on crime – there have been two Home Secretaries whose punitive passions have made penal reformers wistful for the days when Michael Howard was the Tory Party’s favourite conference performer. Of course the policies followed by Jack Straw and David Blunkett may be not unconnected with their nurturing ambitions to be Prime Minister themselves. Blunkett, recovering from his past as a defiant left winger, is driven on creating more and more legal manacles on our behaviour and on stuffing the prisons with a record number of unwilling residents. This goes down well with the readers of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the appeasement of whose prejudices is a top priority for Blair. Which leaves the second part of the sound bite, about being tough on the causes of crime.

For some time now the Home Office has been labouring with the production of a series of guidelines about the “causes” of crime. This has been as long, onerous task which required scouring through many works of reference for evidence to support the design, and indeed the very existence, of the guidelines. At last the labours bore fruit and there emerged a computer-viable assessment tool which, it was hoped, would be a means of gauging the likelihood of individuals who are before the courts getting into trouble again, or being violent or whatever. As may be imagined, the assessment comes out as a pretty hefty document, running to page after page, all of it backed up with a pretty massive instruction manual. There is no shortage of quoted authority to justify the perceived need for a consistent risk assessment, like: “…Clark et al (1993) summarise the evidence on clinical prediction of risk based on professional judgement…Hollin and Palmer (1994) and Gendreau and Coggin (1996) have summarised the research using social dynamic factors to predict re-offending…” In the process of the assessment a variety of characteristics about the offender are contributed in the form of a problem score – the higher the score the greater the risk. The characteristics include offending history, accommodation and employment problems, addiction to drugs or alcohol, education, health… At the end of it all a final score is read off, which gauges whether this person is liable to commit further crimes and how much of a danger they are.

Bad News for Blair

The bad news, for Tony Blair and his admirers reading the Sun and the Daily Mail, is the implicit basis of the assessment, that crime is not a matter of innate wickedness or a wilful resolve to be anti-social but is rooted in a variety if factors all of which are fashioned within society. Not a few people will ask whether we didn’t know that already, without the Home Office wasting all that time and effort. For example a recent report by the housing charity Shelter had something to say about the effect of bad housing on a person’s life chances and behaviour. Over a million children in Britain grow up in housing of such a low standard that it damages their health, education and their general life prospects. Bad housing makes one in twelve children vulnerable to diseases like TB and asthma, it damages their schooling and, in the case of children in emergency housing, makes them twice as likely to be in a hospital Accident and Emergency Department because they have been burned or scalded. If these damaged children, when they grow up, were subjected to that Home Office assessment they would come out with a very high score as likely to be committing crime and possibly dangerous to others.

The Shelter report is the latest in a series of similar investigations which all reached the same conclusion – that for workers it is poverty which conditions their life style, their health and education, their responses to stress, their behaviour and so on. That is the broad general picture; when we look at it in more detail, as in the matter of crime, we can see that poverty is again the determining factor. That is clearly the basis of the Home Office style of criminal assessment. It is also the vital reality which Blair ignored when he was telling us about being tough on the causes of crime. But then he was not concerned with fact but with harvesting votes, which is a very different matter. All that was along time ago and things are going badly for him now. All around him people who once adored him are getting tough on him. Perhaps now they will learn that we must also be tough on the causes of political leaders and what they represent.


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