Sunday, May 22, 2011

 

Ken Clarke: the 'Good Tory'

Michael Foot used to refer to Disraeli and the 'Good Tory' and I've tended to view Ken Clarke as his modern day equivalent. I know he incensed teachers and health professionals when he administered their respective domains but he has always been one of the few Conservative heavyweights who have subscribed to the liberal values with which I identify. And so to his remarks on rape. They have to be viewed within the context of his broad rehabilitative approach to penal policy. He believes that the prison population should be reduced as many inmates are behind bars in an environment which helps neither them or the wider community. As the Observer leader today comments:

Jails are overcrowded because they have become hostels of last resort of drug addicts, the homeless and people suffering from chronic mental illness. Once inside, the only change they undergo is a fast-track education in hardened criminality.

His suggestion that rapists have their sentences halved if they plead guilty, thus saving time and resources has caused outrage because he distinguished between 'serious' and less serious kinds of the crime. This set all kinds of sections squawking their indignation. To me it seemed an uncontroversial comment for a non politician to make. For example, murder is a very serious crime but someone who kills a loved one with a terminal illness surely commits a less serious crime than the killer of Milly Dowler committed? By the same token a stranger who abducts and rapes a young girl commits a much more serious and damaging crime than an 18 year-old having (consensual) sex with an under-age girl?

The problem is twofold however. First, Clarke is the Justice Secretary and must tread the line of legal orthodoxy with much greater care than you or I leaning on the bar of our local. Secondly Clarke has never been one to respect topics as sacred cows to be carefully tip-toed around. He always speaks his mind-often spontaneously and without calculation- and for that, within the stifling orthodoxy of his party, many of us on the left of centre, have admired him.

I thought it churlish of Ed Miliband to opportunistically leap on the passing bandwagon and urge his dismissal at PMQs this week. His choice of words should certainly have been improved, but both the overall policy-reduce the prison population, improve rehabilitation- and the specific example cited were basically sound.

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