Whatever Chris Grayling might be, the Secretary of State for Justice is no Joe Arpaio.
Mr Arpaio, for those unacquainted with him, has built quite a career as “America’s toughest sheriff” by persecuting the inhabitants of Arizona’s penitentiaries in various ways, such as reviving the quaint tradition of the chain gang and feeding them barely edible food.
Mr Grayling’s plans to make stir a touch harder for British inmates barely hint at Mr Arpaio’s repulsive publicity seeking brutalities and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. His declaration that male inmates must wear uniforms for their first fortnight in jug, work longer hours and no longer have an automatic right to watch the football on Sky Sports falls tantalisingly short of having them break rocks in the broiling Arizona sun and feeding them weevils. After a week in the cooler, Cool Hand Luke would grin wryly at the ninnyishness.
In a peculiar way, I find myself regretting the miserable limits to Mr Grayling’s draconian ambition. This in no way stems from any desire to see prisons made less palatable. As a tiresomely archetypal bleeding-heart liberal, who piously finds the notion of incarcerating non-violent offenders at all ridiculous, I assure you nothing could be further from the truth. What irritates about these ideas, in keeping with what passes for political debate in general, is their banality.
If the timing of this announcement left a sliver of doubt about the true purpose, the tone and language removed it. When, a few days before local elections, ministers crudely contrast the supposed gracious living in “holiday-camp” nicks with the gruelling lot of those on or below the average salary, the intent is plain. With Lynton Crosby running this long-range general election campaign for the Conservatives, it is clear that the Tories see sating the low- paid workers’ perceived appetite for scapegoats as the route to victory in 2015.
These prison “reforms” must be viewed as part of that context, along with the meisterplan to limit housing benefit to force people in London to relocate far from their roots, coercing the sick, depressed and incapable to seek imaginary jobs, and starving the disabled and their carers of the means to ameliorate the misery their conditions present. The tactic is to stoke up the resentment of the low-earning employed towards those pastiched by ministers and their mates on the right-wing tabloids as leading lives of luxury on the downtrodden taxpayer. To this end (though many will regard being mandatorily deprived of Jeremy Kyle as a boon), inmates will no longer be allowed to watch daytime telly, that current shorthand for the feckless scrounger.
Whatever the results of these changes, they are unlikely to be seismic. They might win the Tories a few votes from Ukip on Thursday, though this brand of right-wing posturing is probably more designed to feed into the general narrative that Mr Cameron has permanently buried Mr Nice Guy.
As for the prisoners, it is hard to imagine many rooftop protests, let alone full-blown riots, in response to being deprived of Judge Judy. It could be that this policy, if it deserves such a dignified term, has been hatched in part to provoke some kind of human rights challenge, enabling Mr Grayling and his chum Theresa May to renew their rhetoric about withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights and ramp up the macho play-acting. Who knows, perhaps the almost satirically sexist restriction of the newbie uniform to male inmates will inveigle the Andrea Dworkin of HMP Holloway to go to Strasbourg in pursuit of uniform uniformity. No doubt any complaints, legal or not, from prisoners and penal reformers will be welcome in Downing Street as it prosecutes its cynical strategy to create and exaggerate dividing lines. This is not, of course, about saving money. The dog-whistle here, just as with the benefit recipients targeted by Iain Duncan Smith, is that regarding those down on their luck as lesser citizens, if not inferior human beings, is acceptable.
Perhaps the most significant thing about these measures is what they tell us about what would be known, on one of those daytime shows to which prisoners will be denied access, as the Prime Minister’s amazing, amazing journey. Little better encapsulated David Cameron’s ambition to govern as a humane centrist, when he came to power almost three years ago, than his appointment of Ken Clarke as Justice Secretary, with a remit to reform the penal system in a more meaningful way than his successor is willing to attempt.
Being a commonsensical old darling, Mr Clarke appreciated the lunacy of a system which wastes colossal amounts of money on incarcerating the harmless, and encourages recidivism rather than rehabilitation. By general repute, he was making promising strides in dealing with this lose-lose situation, but the Thatcherite tabloids, which still hate him for his perceived starring role in bringing her down, wouldn’t have it. The Sun, several of whose former and present staff could conceivably be sashaying through D wing in uniforms before long, attacked him relentlessly. Cravenly, Mr Cameron relieved him of his portfolio, and while Ken was consigned to the wilderness to rail at Ukip as the Cabinet’s closest thing to an alleged welfare scrounger (bless him, he is subsidised by the taxpayer to idle away his talents), in came Mr Grayling to win admiring headlines of the sort on view yesterday.
In its footling way, this low-level bullying of inmates is undoubtedly good politics. Joe Arpaio has been re-elected Sheriff of his Arizona county five times, and become a national celebrity, because there are plenty of votes to be plucked from the low-hanging fruit of picking on prisoners. None is to be garnered from sticking up for them, and one imagines that these idiocies were partially conceived to tempt Ed Miliband into fighting them, and thereby alienate the hard-working low earners whom Mr Crosby has obviously identified as the pivotal demographic in 2015.
And so we see the next two years shaping up ever more clearly, and ever more miserably, as a mind-numbing, turnout-suppressing cat-and-mouse game. The Tories will appeal to the lowest common denominators of human instinct, and Labour will take a vow of silence, as Mr Miliband did on Monday about his borrowing plans, to avoid walking into the traps. In concentrating his efforts on the barely relevant minutiae for tactical advantage, rather than focusing on the root problems of a perpetually failing system, Mr Grayling neatly sums up in microcosm the macrocosmic paradox that plagues this era. The greater the issues, the smaller the politics becomes.