Politics & Law

Governing through crime wave strikes UK

Jonathan Simon

Rates of crime reported to the police in the UK appear stable, maintaining a long term downward trend of over a decade. The politics of crime however is very much on the rise in England and and from where I write in Edinburgh (ironically, Northern Ireland, where sectarian rioting took place this week, crime policy remains on a steady course of reform). My earlier optimism that I would observe the UK moving away from governing through crime in my year long sabbatical here, is rapidly proving misguided as I prepare to return to a state and nation nearly ruined by those politics.

More than six months after the new coalition government in the UK Parliament proposed significant measures to reverse the rise of mass incarceration in England Wales, the Justice Minister on Tuesday was forced to admit the abandonment of most of those proposals. Meanwhile the Prime Minister (the man who once earned the wrath of the tabloids by defending hoodie wearing youths from ASBOs) held his own press conference to bring out some vintage Tory tough on crime talk,including an old new “two strikes and you’re out” law with life sentences for repeated serious offenses, and hoary rhetoric about citizens’ rights to use force against intruders (read Richard Garside’s commentary in the Guardian). Meanwhile, Labour party and opposition leader Ed Miliband, whose own “shadow” Justice minister had generally approved of the government’s plans to reduce reliance on imprisonment, continued channeling Tony Blair, using his opportunity to question the Prime Minister in the House yesterday to beat him around the head with another government reform proposal to reduce somewhat the range of persons subjected to having their DNA held by the police (read Alan Travis’ analysis in the Guardian). Miliband once again invoked rape victims, already symbolically deployed in the past several weeks to wound the government’s proposed sentencing discount for early guilty pleas (see my earlier post).

Meanwhile, here in Scotland, the new Scottish National Party (SNP) government, just a month away from its smashing victory over a Scottish Labour party that tried impotently to attack them as soft on crime, has unfurled its own headline driven crime agenda. One measure directed at Glasgow’s notoriously sectarian football fans (the main “old firm” teams are identified along Protestant and Catholic lines) threatens a five year prison sentence for those making offensive remarks likely to incite listeners at or around football matches. In the Holyrood Parliament on Tuesday, the government’s Community Safety Minister admitted that under the new law, singing “God Save the Queen,” or making a sign of a cross, could be illegal (read Tom Peterkin’s article in the Scotsman). This comes after weeks in which SNP leader, and Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond (whose popularity was largely credited with the SNP’s election victory) has carried on a running diatribe against the UK Supreme Court and human rights lawyers in general, for the reversal of a Scottish murder conviction in Human Rights Act challenge (read Andrew Whitaker and John Robertson’s reporting in the Scotsman).

What explains this sorry season? I have always argued that governing through crime is about the search for legitimacy in an age when political parties no longer adhere to coherent social and economic philosophies. In most cases, crime talk is a “second best” approach for politicians that no longer feel confident about their approach to governing. Here in the UK, the Conservative Party turned to “prison works” rhetoric in the early 1990s, after the wheels started coming off full strength economic Thatcherism, and Tony Blair found his footing on crime as he led the “New” Labour party to abandon its commitment to socialism.

In the UK parliament, with a coalition government for the first time in more than half a century, none of the major parties has a coherent narrative to offer on social or economic policy, or for that matter on Europe, human rights, on military intervention, on climate change. Tory leader and Prime Minister David Cameron has talked about a “Big Society,” and intimated in all kinds of ways that he is not a naive Thatcherite on the role of the state; but so far his government is largely known for the massive budget cuts it is planning to impose on the British people (where most spending goes) and plans to increase the private sector’s role in both the NHS and schools. Labour leader Ed Miliband struggles to provide any kind of picture of what a Labour government would do if it got back in power (failing in an infamous BBC interview last Fall to even explain who the “middle” was in his frequent rhetoric about needing to held Britain’s “squeezed middle”). The Lib-Dem leader, and deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has suffered the most sustained political losses in the recent elections (losing the party’s base in local councils in Northern England and in the Scottish regional government, and losing its signature Alternative Voting referendum, all by wide margins), has offered mostly self pitying statements about his own feelings and experiences rather than a political vision for the country. Thus although none of the three leaders has the kind of visceral instinct to govern through crime that Tony Blair did, all of them are falling back on it in the face of a broadly scary historical juncture and public communications environment (media, popular subjectivity) still powerfully oriented toward fear of crime and victim centered anger.

In Scotland the May elections seem to have worked the other way around. The SNP’s unexpected triumphs may have been a mixed blessing for a party that is now expected to forcefully proceed toward its existential goal of an independent Scotland and show case the kind of government they would bring to such a nation. But the SNP is a coalition of its own with a base that shares little agreement on how Scotland should be governed.

All in all its a disappointing end to what has been a fascinating political cycle (which began in the May 2010 UK national elections) to observe. Of course much more is at stake than my edification. As in the US, accumulating social, economic, and foreign policy challenges mount while politics degenerates into an increasingly incoherent jumble of recycled themes.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comment to "Governing through crime wave strikes UK":
    • Peter Jones

      A very interesting and thought provoking post, and a point of view I had not considered before. However, as a UK citizen and voter, much of things rings true with me, particularly in the barren political landscape that we now have. For a while all parties tried to crowd towards the centre with strange tentacles reaching into their past to satisfy their die-hard traditionalist supporters, but it’s a balancing act that none of them have got right.

      I am genuinely worried about the damage that will be done to our criminal justice and policing systems by the current trend of sticking to a policy in the face of overwhelming opposition form all sides, simply to show that you are being tough.

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