Monday 27 March 2023

Who's the baddest of them all?


The PM is out and about today promoting his latest plans for persecuting those who commit anti-social behaviour. The Labour opposition is bitterly complaining that all he’s done is stolen and watered down their own plans for the same problem. It’s turning into a competition to see who can propose the most authoritarian measures, although they haven’t yet started an argument about what colour jumpsuits the offenders should be wearing, and neither (so far) has repeated the call a certain Boris Johnson made for them to be chained together to add to their shame and discomfort.

There is no doubt that ‘anti-social behaviour’ is a serious nuisance in some communities (although the definition isn’t really as obvious as some seem to think), nor that it is often the poorest communities which suffer most (which is not the same as saying that’s where the law is most assiduously enforced). And I suspect that many of those plagued by it would rather like to see their tormentors beavering away at their community service in fluorescent clothing. And yet the idea that police will be given more powers to dispense some sort of instant justice leave me more than a little uneasy – and that would be so even if we hadn’t had strong evidence last week that some police officers really can’t be trusted to act fairly without favour, and not to take advantage of their position. It’s not a new idea, of course: it was Tony Blair who wanted to empower police to march people to the nearest cash-point and take money from them on the spot (a very middle-class view if ever there was one, with its assumption that everyone had a cash card and could just withdraw substantial sums from their bank at will). We should also never forget that what they are willing to do with one group of citizens today, they will probably be happy to do to another group tomorrow.

The real question should be about what we are, collectively, trying to achieve. That, in turn, is connected with the age-old question about the purpose of the justice system – deterrent, punishment, or re-education? The answer, from Tory and Labour alike, seems to be first and foremost punishment, with an assumption (based on very little hard evidence) that punishment is in itself a deterrent. And the more obvious and embarrassing that punishment is, the better. It’s not at all clear to me, though, that that is the ‘right’ answer. The more desirable objective is surely that people feel enough common ownership to value facilities rather than vandalise them; that they feel enough membership of the community to consider the needs and feelings of others; that our communities are cohesive enough to reduce the extent of policing rather than increase it. It’s far from obvious that shaming miscreants contributes much to delivering that outcome.

And that brings us back to that old question of ideology again. Do we want to create and maintain cohesive communities of which people want to be part, or do we want to enforce compliance by heavy-handed policing? The traditional Tory answer is obvious – enforcement is always better than any form of community solidarity. Imposing ‘law and order’ on the lesser orders (but not on themselves) is a major part of what they see themselves as being all about. It’s  also the stock authoritarian answer. The fact that Labour are competing to see who is the most authoritarian is another example of the point made here before: such differences as exist between Labour and Tory aren’t about ideology – they share the same basic ideology, and are competing solely to see which can most effectively pursue it. They may yet end up arguing about the colour of the jumpsuits.

No comments: