Monday, 17 May 2010

New Labour's Law and Order Crusade

By Joe Sim*

On June 23 Tony Blair outlined his future vision for the 'modernisation' of the criminal justice system. His speech contained a litany of Blair's favourite themes: respect, decency, community, the impact of global social change and the need for summary powers to protect the decent, law abiding majority from the ravages of the feral, atavistic minority. He set the speech in the evangelical context of the need to modernise the country's institutions so that they are fit to respond to the challenges generated by the economic and political demands of a free market, globalised economy. Two days later, an editorial in The Observer argued that the 'PM's vision for law and order' was 'fair but flawed' and that the speech offered an 'intellectual deliberation' on the demands being made on the criminal justice system (The Observer, 25 June 2006). In fact, the speech was far from being a 'fair but flawed' overview of the criminal justice system. Blair's iron, admonitory rhetoric had little to do with the delivery of criminal and social justice but had everything to do with reproducing a populist definition of crime and a fear-induced response to it. There are five areas to the speech that are worth considering.

First, even on its own terms, the speech was decidedly unbalanced in that it overwhelmingly concentrated on the 'tough on crime' side of the slogan that made him famous when New Labour was in opposition. The other side of this slogan, 'tough on the causes of crime', merited 7 paragraphs in a speech that ran to 10 downloaded pages and over 100 paragraphs. And even here, when discussing the causes of crime, Blair's analysis was narrow and reductionist in that he focussed on problem families and their ability to deterministically propel their offspring into criminal and anti social behaviour. Who are these families? Not those whose sons and daughters attend the heavily subsidised public school system and who seamlessly move onto the glittering spires of Oxbridge. The anti social behaviour of the children of this class is ideologically constructed as 'high spirits', a passing moment before they settle down to the real business of running the country and the economy. As ever, the sub-text of the speech needed no deconstruction for the mass media, it was the family structures of the poor which were the focus of Blair's remarks and not the personal relationships and behaviour of the rich and powerful whose family structures and interpersonal relationships are immensely problematic for generating collective social solidarity and individual responsibility. In short, the family dynamics of corporate criminals were not on Blair's agenda.

Second, while Blair argued that his modernisation project was not based on any feelings of nostalgia, in fact the speech was heavily dependent on an idealised view of the past in which community cohesion was built on respect and where crime was held in check by informal mechanisms of social control which magically produced a consensual social order. However, for many women and children living in these communities in the first half of the twentieth century, these informal mechanisms did little to protect them from the brutal reality of domestic violence and incest. The communities which Blair so idealises were often based on a culture of masculinity which not only kept this violence hidden but WERE also overtly hostile to outside state intervention. How, therefore, does Blair's sepia-tinted vision of the past square with the brutal reality confronting these women and children in their everyday lives?

Third, there is the question of anti social behaviour. Here, Blair has consistently set up a "straw man" version of reality where the liberal establishment either denies that such behaviour exists or condones it because the perpetrators are poor, deprived and socially excluded. This is not only a travesty of the truth but it also distracts attention away from the real issue which is who defines what constitutes anti social behaviour. Ironically, on the day of the speech, it was reported that there had been a number of arrests at Royal Ascot for drunkenness. Did Blair have these people in mind when discussing anti social behaviour? Undoubtedly not, his definition of anti social behaviour again remains firmly focussed on the poor and the powerless, not the rich and the powerful, many of whose activities do untold damage and harm to the wider social order but remain either outside of the scope of the criminal law or receive relatively lenient punishments on the rare occasions when any perpetrators are brought to court. As Christopher Hitchens remarked in 2000: 'people who preach law "n" order for the weak are inevitably soft on crime when it comes to the strong'.

Additionally, Blair constantly juxtaposes the small minority of law-breakers with the vast majority of law-abiding, decent citizens. And yet, many of these 'decent' citizens are themselves engaged in criminal activity. In 2002, the annual cost of crime was £35 billion. Embezzlement accounted for 40% of this figure. Recorded white collar crime increased by 500% during the year, while there was a 7% drop in burglary and robbery, the very crimes that that remain the focus of the state's attention (The Observer, 13 April 2003). In 2005, it was estimated that corporate fraud was costing UK businesses £72 billion each year. More specifically, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PSU) has pointed out that VAT fraud costs £5 billion annually in lost taxes. Crucially, while police numbers continue their inexorable rise, reinforced by the growing presence of the private security industry with their relentless focus on conventional crime, the PSU has noted that 12,500 jobs could be lost at Revenue and Customs with over 4,000 moving from the South-East where, according to the union, the majority of VAT fraud is located.

Politicians like Blair stay stoically silent with respect to crimes committed by middle class 'respectables'. The constant barrage of publicity around benefit fraud compared with the ongoing silence around middle class fraud and income tax evasion, remains the classic example of how the crime problem is ideologically constructed by the majority of politicians, media commentators and state servants.

Fourth, Blair's arguments were also premised on the idea that public attitudes to crime and punishment are punitive. However, various surveys have shown that if sentencing options, and their philosophical underpinnings, are explained clearly to the public then they will take a less retributive position on law and order. Additionally, the public also consistently underestimate the sentences that offenders receive and fail to recognise that the explosion in the prison population in the last decade or so has been due to the role of the courts both in incarcerating more people and in sentencing offenders to longer periods inside. Blair will not attempt to engage with the public on this terrain because it means recognising that they may have less punitive attitudes than politicians claim. It would also mean admitting that the country's judiciary are not stereotypical liberals always searching for the soft option when dealing with offenders.

Fifth, when Blair talks about victims he focuses on those whose lives have been devastated through the violent loss of a relative or friend. And yet there are other voices in this debate who should also be heard, who have not resorted to the clamour for vengeance, but whose hurt, pain and sense of loss is no less acute. Anthony Walker's mother provided one example of dignified forgiveness in the midst of unimaginable grief after her son's brutal racist murder in July 2005. Where are the voices of politicians here? While they condemned Anthony's murder as an act of racist barbarism, they were much less forthcoming regarding his mother's plea for forgiveness. Why? Again her sentiments did not chime with the retributive philosophy articulated by Blair and his inner cabal of unaccountable advisors.

In contrast, Blair's emotive reference point remains the murder of two-year old James Bulger in February 1993, whose family have articulated a very different response to the perpetrators, a response that plugs into the Prime Minister's vision of punishment. This is not to discard or diminish the acute pain and sense of loss felt by the Bulger family but it does raise questions as to why politicians focus on one family's response to their loss while virtually ignoring the response of the Walker family to their loss. In addition, the discourse of the victim is socially constructed in very particular ways. Those who have been victims of corporate criminality or who have suffered violence at the heads, hands and feet of state servants, are not considered by Blair (and the majority of those working in the mass media) as "real" victims in need of empathy, support and justice. Their needs remain on the political and criminal justice margins, subservient and subjugated in the drive to create an image of respectable victimisation that is then used to legitimate a further increase in the authoritarian powers of the state. The contrast between the introduction of victim impact statements which give a voice to victims in court proceedings, and the continuing struggle to have corporate manslaughter recognised as a criminal offence, nearly 10 years after New Labour came to power, provides a striking indication of where Blair's sympathies lie.

Finally, and most ironically, Blair's emphasis on the need for individuals to be law-abiding and support the rule of law, came from an individual whose support for the international rule of law was brutally exposed by the war in Iraq and its questionable legality, as well as the non-application of the rule of law to those detained in the sepulchral isolation of Guantanamo Bay. The focus on law and order (and on the other "reforms" that New Labour is proposing for the public sector) has distracted attention away from the crisis generated by the war and the everyday death and destruction of Iraqi civilians. The "war on terror" has allowed Blair to push forward with an authoritarian agenda that underpins his government's assault on civil liberties and human rights. Blair and the government have elided the issue of terrorism, with populist concerns around community safety and public protection, with bogus asylum seekers and crime, with animalistic youths and with single parents. Supported by a feral, tabloid press, this nightmare scenario has worked its way into public consciousness and popular culture which is then used to legitimate a further clampdown not only on those on the political and economic margins of a ruthless international capitalist economy, but also on dissent and deviance in the wider society as the exceptional and repressive powers claimed by the state increasingly become normalised.

In power, some New Labour ministers have attempted to introduce progressive reforms around law and order. Ministers like Harriet Harman have focussed on issues around domestic violence and the need for a more proactive state response to this violence. Similarly, confronting homophobic violence has been more evident in this government?s thinking compared with previous office holders. However, such progressive reforms have been rare. Blair's speech did nothing to confront the edgy, more general sense of individual alienation and collective sense of desperation increasingly embedded in the culture of a society that feels itself, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, to be "under siege". His apocalyptic rhetoric will not alleviate this siege mentality; if anything it will reinforce and exacerbate it, thereby legitimating the further intensification in the corrosive power of an increasingly authoritarian state and its non-accountable servants.

*Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, School of Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University.

Thanks to Anette Ballinger and Steve Tombs for the comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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