I think it was the late (and very great) Auberon Waugh who coined the expression “punishment freaks” to describe the perceived love of the British (he actually said it was more of an English thing than a UK one) for the imposition of harsh punishments for people of whom they disapproved.
But I wonder whether he was right. Of course, no can dispute this, most MPs, of all parties (this is not a party political piece), are definitely punishment freaks. They disagree as to whom they wish to imprison, but they agree that prison is a jolly good thing and should be used for many more people than it is at present. Give a backbench MP the opportunity of introducing a private member’s bill and he or she will almost certainly dream up a new imprisonable offence. What is the point of being an MP, they ask themselves, if one can’t arrange for people of whom one disapproves to be sent to prison?
And yet I doubt whether there is an overwhelming longing, amongst those MPs’ constituents, for more and more people to be sent to prison for longer and longer. Of course, there is almost universal agreement that dangerous violent offenders should be locked up for as long as possible. But I suspect it is only MPs and magistrates, for instance, who think it excellent fun to send people to prison for not buying television licences or failing to pay the Council Tax. And then there are those cases, we read of them often, where defendants are sent to prison for non-violent offences committed as a result of desperation or illness. We ask ourselves: “why did the judge do that?” The answer, in almost every case, is that the judge assumes that politicians’ adoration of prison for inadequate people is a reflection of the British public’s opinion.
Whatever the reasons, we now have almost the highest per capita prison population in the free world. America beats us, but practically no other country does. The cost to the taxpayer is gigantic. The imprisoned people do not reform (they can’t get jobs or homes when they emerge from behind bars). No one tries to help them sort their lives out. They just come back for more.
This is all desperately distressing, and I am convinced that most of my decent compatriots agree. The MPs, however, do not. They, either because they are genuine punishment freaks who get a buzz from thinking of people being incarcerated or, one must be charitable, because they think there are votes in state brutality, can see nothing wrong with our policy of sending as many people to prison as possible.
For a while, it looked as though reform might be on the way. We went through a horrid period when Chris Grayling was “Justice” Secretary. For him, it was all about votes. He assumed the voters wanted brutality, and he assured them he would give it to them. But then we got Michael Gove. Now, I do know that he is very unpopular for having been on the winning side in the EU referendum. But he was an amazingly enlightened and intelligent Justice (we can do without the quotation marks in his case) Secretary. He was determined to do something about the scandal of our horribly high prison population. And he was also just as determined to do something serious about rehabilitation of offenders. But the Prime Minister does not like him. She got rid of him and appointed, in his place, an MP in the Grayling mould called Liz Truss.
Ms Truss, assuming there are votes in this, has now told us that she wants our prison population to continue to be higher than that of the vast majority of free countries. She adopts the now normal tactic of politicians of misleading us. She says all those prisoners are nasty, violent offenders. The fact that most of them are not, does not trouble her conscience. “Justice” Secretaries are there to get votes, not to advance justice.
I can forgive Mrs May a lot, but I am sure she did us an enormous disservice by allowing her personal dislike of Michael Gove to deprive us of a first rate Justice Secretary.