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Tuesday, September 06, 2011 

Reading the riots with Ken Clarke.

It was probably for the best that Ken Clarke did a disappearing act in the aftermath of the riots. Well, one suspects he was on holiday anyway, no doubt in some agreeable resort, cigar in one hand, pint of ale in the other while the feral underclass back home were looting far more proletarian booze and fags from whichever supermarket or off-licence they managed to smash their way into. His immediate analysis, which would have almost certainly been exactly the same as the one dispensed via the Guardian today, might not have gone down too well while his more excitable colleagues were calling for the rubber bullets to be brought out and the army to be deployed, or with the wider public.

His article does however fall squarely in with all the other pieces produced, both by politicians and hacks, who took the riots as proving their prior belief: while for Melanie Phillips they were the logical conclusion of a "a three-decade liberal experiment" (liberalism it seems began under Margaret Thatcher) and for Seumas Milne the result of greed at the top of society, dear old Ken instead concludes that it's not down to the parents or a sudden moral collapse as David Cameron has hypothesised, but instead the criminal justice punishment punishing but not rehabilitating.

To suggest the evidence for this is probably even slimmer than for almost any other explanation offered, baring the blaming of rap music or the whites becoming black (® David Starkey) would not be putting it too strongly. To begin with, Clarke's quoted figure of 75% of those over 18 who have so far been arrested having previous convictions is almost meaningless without the Ministry of Justice providing a detailed breakdown of exactly what those past offences were. We don't know whether they include simple cautions, or indeed whether the convictions resulted in custodial sentences, which would at least begin to go some way towards putting flesh on the bones of Clarke's argument. The MoJ website doesn't even mention Clarke's use of the statistic, which we will almost certainly be hearing time and again over the next few months. The sentencing remarks which have been released from the first batch of cases dealt with by crown courts also provide a muddied picture: all three of those dealt with by Judge Chapple in the inner London court had past criminal convictions (PDF), but only one could conceivably be described as being a member of the "criminal classes"; the other two had convictions from six and seven years ago respectively, while the former had more recently committed the heinous offence of travelling without a ticket on the railway.

A similar, if for now anecdotal pattern seems to be emerging across the country. Just as there were a good number of those who have spent their adult lives in and out of prison taking advantage of the situation, there were also a large number with either no previous record or with cautions from years before who found themselves caught up in the moment, or indeed persuaded by the apparent breakdown in law and order to help themselves. That beyond the victims' panel set-up by Nick Clegg there seems to be little interest as yet in collecting detailed information and evidence on how and why the riots started and spread beyond the death of Mark Duggan is both worrying and informative. Ten years ago the riots in Bradford and other northern towns led to the Ritchie and then Cantle reports; despite the disorder being far more widespread and serious this summer there is still no suggestion as yet that we're going to have anything approaching the in-depth analysis provided by those inquiries, or the informed recommendations they made as a result.

What it seems we will have is a continuation of policies the government was pursuing anyway, only speeded up and intensified slightly, regardless of their efficacy. In one way, this is a good thing: that we haven't seen an immediate rush to legislate and give additional, unnecessary powers to the police is a positive, and it's something that could well have happened had the authoritarian-leaning Labour party still been in power. It does also however more than suggest we have a coalition which doesn't change its mind when the facts change, or rather, doesn't even want to gather those facts in the first place. We should have expected as much on the economy, on which the government has built its entire foundation: even when admitting growth won't be as strong as forecast George Osborne refuses to consider any possibility that a change in course is needed, as to do so would be the equivalent of saying Labour and especially the hated Ed Balls have been right all along.

Of Clarke better should be expected. His plans for reforming the prison system had already been stymied by David Cameron, responding to the familiar cries from the right-wing press prior to the blowing up of the phone hacking scandal. Having originally wanted a reduction in the prison population, he had to settle on a stabilisation. That now looks even more optimistic than it did then: even if only half of those who have been arrested following the riots receive a prison sentence, the numbers behind bars will increase by at least 1,250. Rehabilitation of any variety is more difficult in heavily overcrowded jails where inmates spend most of the day banged up, rather than working as Clarke wants increasing numbers to: the resources weren't there before the cuts, and paying providers on results, which is still in the trial stage and completely unproven can't even begin to pick up the slack.

With the original anger at those involved in the rioting beginning to dissipate, now would have been the perfect time to look beyond the simplistic explanations so far offered for why, and Clarke could have taken a leading role, as Michael Heseltine did back in 1981 when he went to Liverpool following the Toxteth riots. Clarke doing little more than repeating the line the coalition has taken almost verbatim is a sad sight indeed.

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