Michael Fry: Ken Clarke keeps the prison kettle boiling

Few governments have come into a more unenviable inheritance than the coalition at Westminster, but at least there is one member of it intent on having a whale of a time.

Ken Clarke, from the lofty height of the Lord Chancellorship, can spend his days on that sweetest of all political tasks: wreaking revenge on past and present colleagues who have done him down before and would do the same again if they got the chance. Only this time they won't get the chance.

It did not take Ken long to throw down the gauntlet. Within weeks of assuming his venerable office, he disowned the prevailing penal philosophy in British government, summed up in the maxim that "prison works". An instant howl of protest rose from Michael Howard, the fellow Tory who formulated the maxim.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Howard is still trying to throw spanners in Clarke's works. He did so again this week, doubtless confident of support from the Conservative backbenches where views of law and order have not, even in these Cameronian times, come to err on the side of the forgiving. Dave might have urged us to hug hoodies, but the average Tory would still prefer, if not to hang, then certainly to flog them.

Not that support for Howard's point of view remains confined to his own side. New Labour were hardly slouches on crime, and in fact by constantly inventing fresh offences set out with some relish to make more of us into criminals. Jack Straw, leader of the Left's own self-righteous rat-pack, has duly come out against any new agenda of liberal reform in penal policy.

It has to be said in addition that Howard and Straw are doubtless more representative of public opinion - and certainly of sentiment in the press - than Clarke is. Prison reform has never been a vote-winner, neither among bourgeois property-owners, nor in the respectable working class, nor even among the denizens of sink estates (who through breeding the criminal classes also suffer more crime).

So any prison reformer has to set a course right into the teeth of a coming storm of protest, obstruction and personal abuse. All the more reason for Ken Clarke to relish the prospect. Indeed, he will bind himself to the helm.

For myself, I cannot say I admire all Ken's opinions, but I have always admired his style, the soft-shoe shuffle towards the brutal termination, wreathed in the pungent smell of small cigars and the soothing sound of modern jazz. As a minister, he has not been much of a dove, especially not when he was health secretary in the late 1980s, nor even when he was home secretary in the early 1990s. It is his love affair with Europe that has saddled him with the reputation of a man who gives way, and frustrated his repeated efforts to become leader of his party. And the truth of the matter is that he stuck to his guns whatever the cost to himself.

But now it will be pay-back time. There has, ever since the election, been restiveness on the Conservative back-benches, prompted by the compromises of the coalition despite the unavoidable stringency of its economic policy. In foreign policy, the charm offensive from Washington to Brussels may not be to the taste of those who preferred Thatcherite rigour and vigour either.

It is really only in domestic policy that chances will come to let off some Tory steam. But the Lib Dems will support Ken. So he is unassailable: if he should go, the coalition will go too.

Note, then, with what glee Ken turns up the pressure. He might have settled for a quiet life in this, surely the last big job of his career, but instead he goes straight for the jugular, for that surging arterial stream through which the Tory heart beats most strongly: law and order.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If he can infuriate the Conservative Party over that, then it will feel the lash which it has again and again inflicted on him. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord Chancellor.

Ken might after all have taken refuge in the country's financial crisis to argue that we cannot slam up any more criminals, because there is no room for them in the existing prisons and no money to build any more prisons. But no, he seizes the bull by the horns to argue instead that prison is not the right answer to the problems of at least some people we put there.

On a recent visit to Leeds Prison, Clarke had the press see him meeting an asylum seeker, a disqualified driver and a man who had failed to keep up payments of child support. The equivalent photo-opportunity when Howard was in charge produced a picture of him hefting a truncheon.

While that second image told a simpler story, we might hope the first picture could give pause even to the most supine televiewer. Of course, we should lock up murderers and child molesters for a long time, but must we mete out the same sort of treatment to those who are merely inadequate or sometimes just unfortunate, turning moderately bad people into very bad people?

That is after all what prison can and does do: convicts go in as fine defaulters and come out as heroin addicts. It is hard to see how anybody gains from that, whether at the level of the individual or of society as a whole.

As a result of the Megrahi case, Kenny MacAskill was facing a chorus of vituperation of the kind that will start to rain down on Clarke before long.

Given the state of the country, there is little alternative to locking fewer people up and preparing inmates better for life outside. Only in that way, in any event, will rates of reoffending drop.

The best politicians are those that recognise and act on unpopular necessities.

They include Clarke - and MacAskill too.