‘Jail a hoodie’ Cameron begs questions about people power

SUDDENLY, hugging a hoodie is so yesterday. Dave, who first tried to popularise the fashion, is now leading the charge to crush feral youth. With opinion in Middle England sharply divided between those who want rioters castrated and those favouring crucifixion, the courts responded to the public mood by imposing some headline-catching Draconian sentences. Preoccupation with the European Convention on Human Rights was significantly absent.

Six months’ imprisonment for stealing a £3.50 case of water from a supermarket seems a trifle severe, even to those of us who wanted to see the Gurkhas sent in to sort out the rioters. When compared with the one-day custodial sentence imposed on a man found in possession of two T-shirts, it is difficult to believe that these disparate punishments were meted out under the same legal system. The problem with the sentences is not that they are too severe, but that they are inconsistent.

Dave, however, has no qualms about the courts’ new-found severity: last Wednesday he said they had “decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that”. The question is now being asked whether it is an impropriety for politicians to engage with issues of criminal sentencing. The leading spokesman for the Trappist school of political disengagement is the former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell: “It’s none of our business.” Campbell said last week: “My view is that politicians should neither be cheering nor booing when it comes to the matter of sentences. Politicians make the law, police enforce the law and it is for judges to implement the law.”

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That argument is undermined by his reference to politicians as the originators of the law. Over recent decades we have been subjected to an unprecedented avalanche of legislation, much of it manufactured overseas. For legislators to refrain from comment on how their own laws, or those over which they have delegated powers to Brussels, are functioning would be an abdication of responsibility and a provocation to the public. It is in any case a myth to pretend that politicians do not constantly intervene in the operation of the law. Only last year the Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke was proposing a new sentencing policy to reduce prison inmates by 3,000; we may safely assume such soft-touch measures are unlikely to be revisited in the foreseeable future.

Nearer home, we should be thankful the riots did not spread to Scotland, since Kenny MacAskill, our dysfunctional justice secretary, told the Scottish Police Federation conference in April 2008 that the notion the police had a duty to protect the public from criminals was “an anachronism in this day and age”: what mattered was that they should be recruited from diverse ethnic and sexual backgrounds. His abolition of all prison sentences of less than three months (having been frustrated in his attempt to make the limit six months) is hardly an advertisement for a hands-off posture towards sentencing by politicians.

The fact that individual politicians with bleeding-heart liberal notions of justice can impose their eccentric views on the public makes it irrelevant whether they pass comment on the courts’ activities in between legislating. Even individual cases may legitimately be commented on if there is an issue of the public interest. Indeed, it is difficult to see how significant public debate on the law can take place if politicians do not engage with the country on legal issues. In recent years that debate has been a monologue, with politicians telling the country what laws it should have, instead of listening to the public’s concern.

The riots have changed that for two reasons: because they spread to so many different parts of the country and because they posed a challenge to government itself. As one commentator observed, the rioters could smell Dave’s fear. Issues such as state control of social networking sites need to be addressed. China is loving this: its state-controlled media are trumpeting the fact that Britain, which rebuked Beijing for suppressing electronic communications, is now considering similar measures.

Another question is whether four-year prison sentences are justifiable in cases where the accused did not actually participate in rioting but incited others to do so on Facebook. Was their offence any different from the conduct of cranks on soapboxes at Hyde Park demanding revolution? Britain gave asylum to Karl Marx whose deluded writings caused the slaughter of 100 million people. There is a strong argument that incitement to revolt is at least as serious as participation; but it has to be debated. Until this month the knee-jerk British reaction to footage of crowds on the streets of foreign cities was to celebrate “people power”; we cannot complain if satirically minded foreigners are calling this “the English Spring”.